An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Minds Opened to the Scriptures

A sermon on Luke 24:36b-48 by Nathan Nettleton

We’ve just read from the Bible. Now, you probably weren’t the least bit surprised about that, because we read from the Bible every Sunday. In fact the Bible is usually read out loud in this chapel every day of the week. Now that we’ve heard from the Bible, I am now to preach, and when I preach, you generally expect me, at least in some way, to preach from the Bible. My latest interests, my pet grumbles, and my current political hobby horse may be of passing interest to some of you, but what you want to hear from is the Bible. Well, this morning I’m not just going to preach from the Bible, I’m going to preach about the Bible.

But there is a certain amount of fear and trepidation about the Bible too, isn’t there? Because there are a lot of fights going on in the churches, and most of them are either directly about the Bible and how we should understand it, or they’re about something else but the different sides use the Bible differently and end up arguing about the Bible any way.

How about a quick survey? What are some of the main arguments going on about the Bible???? Or perhaps a question with simpler answers – what are some of the labels that get tossed around to characterise people’s different views about the Bible??? (fundamentalist, liberal, literalist, biblicist, evangelical).

So how, in the midst of all these controversies and arguments, are we to make any sense of it all? How do we approach the scriptures with any sort of confidence that we are not falling into one or other of the various heresies about its use? For that matter, what is the Bible and how can we appropriately use it?

Well, let’s start by looking at our gospel reading and what it has to say. I’m not, by the way, going to attempt to solve all the arguments this morning, but maybe, starting with this story, we can find a way forward in the midst of them.

This story is, of course, one of the resurrection stories, the accounts of the disciples encountering Jesus, alive and firing on all cylinders after he had been unmistakably dead and buried. Last week we had one of John’s stories, and the week before we had one of Mark’s. This one’s from Luke. As you probably noticed, the first part of today’s reading is quite similar to last week’s from John. It tells of the disciples thinking maybe they were seeing a ghost, and Jesus showing them the wounds in his hands to convince them that it really is him. And as I emphasised last week, it is the wounds in the hands of the risen Christ that establish for sure the connection between the suffering rejected man on the cross, and the living, life-giving unstoppable Christ.

But in the second half of the story Jesus begins to explain to them the connection between the events they have been witnessing and the teaching of the Bible. And most interestingly it says, “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Remember these were people, many of whom had been travelling with Jesus for three years or so. This was not the first time they had heard Jesus talking about the Bible. But now the penny dropped. Now they began to see what it was that he’d been saying these scriptures were on about. It’s not that they thought he was lying before, or that they didn’t trust the Bible. It was that they couldn’t get their minds around it.

Now if they couldn’t get their minds around it, what chance have we got? The scriptures were mostly written from within a Jewish culture and reflect a Jewish world view. These disciples were Jewish. We are not. The scriptures had all been written in the last thousand years or so, when these disciple were trying to get their minds round them. For us it’s two thousand to three and a half thousand. And the world has changed more in the last fifty years than it did in the whole of the last thousand before these guys. The Bible uses literary styles and imagery that were familiar to these disciples, but which make as much sense as hieroglyphics to us. So what hope have we got? Even if we were to accept on faith that the Bible is true, that doesn’t help much if you can’t make much sense of it. It all sounds a bit hopeless, doesn’t it.

Well, I don’t think it is completely hopeless actually. It’s not that I think there is any easy answers to the obstacles to understanding the Bible. I majored in Biblical studies in my theology degree and I can tell you all about the difficulties in a great deal of detail. And I can tell you lots about the highly technical historical literary methodologies that are used to work through them. And if I did, your eyes would mostly glaze over and you’d leave none the wiser.

The actual reason why I don’t think our desire to understand the Bible is hopeless is because of precisely what happened in this story. Jesus is alive, and Jesus can open our minds to understand the scriptures.

Now before you all turn off and say, “Yeah, right! It hasn’t helped me much so far,” let me clarify. I’m not saying it is just a simple matter of praying for insight or something and “Hey Presto” suddenly Jesus zaps you and you understand everything clearly. I’m sure some of you probably think I’ve been losing the plot in the last few months, but I haven’t entirely thrown my brain out! I’m not talking about some easy short cut solution.

I’m talking about getting to know Jesus Christ. The risen and living Christ. We are actually in a similar position to these first disciples. Like them, our understanding of the Bible arises from our relationship with Christ, not the other way round. You do not know Christ because you believe the Bible. You believe the Bible because you know and trust Christ.

For some reason, and I can’t pretend to understand why, Christ has chosen to make the Bible a major way, perhaps the major way in which he communicates with us. If we want hear the voice of Christ regularly, reading the scriptures regularly is about the best place to start.

In some ways it is much like getting to know any body else. When you have a friend you trust, you understand a lot more of what they say. You recognise their jokes as jokes, their hyperbole as hyperbole, their poetic license as poetic license and when they are deadly serious you know it. You’ll still make the odd mistake from time to time, but generally you know how to take what they say. For example, because I know them, I know that if Christine says, “Turn the flaming heater down, you’re wasting fuel,” it means exactly the same as when Ranita says, “Does anyone else feel warm? Shall we turn the heater down?” But if you didn’t know them you couldn’t understand that. You’d think one was giving an order and the other was asking a question, when actually they mean exactly the same thing.

And knowing them you’d also know that if you heard those things the other way round we’d be in serious trouble. If Ranita said, “Turn the flaming heater down, you’re wasting fuel,” it would mean she was really angry and you were in big trouble, and if Christine said, “Does anyone else feel warm? Shall we turn the heater down?” you’d know she was having a complete nervous breakdown! You only know how to interpret these things when you know who you’re dealing with.

When you get to know someone well, you understand the different ways they speak at different times and without thinking about it you adjust and interpret accordingly. You are able to tell when things they say are not literally true, and you also trust that they will not deliberately mislead us or tell us things about themselves that will deceive us. When I say that sometime I think my wife comes from another planet, you adjust without thinking so that you do not interpret my statement by the same literal criteria you would use if I was telling you what date her birthday was.

It is the same with getting to know Jesus Christ and understanding what he is saying to us through the Bible. When Psalm 137 says blessed are those who smash Babylonian babies against rocks, you are not supposed to interpret it the same way as when John’s gospel says God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son. If every word of the book of Genesis was supposed to be interpreted as literal history you could get very confused trying to work out what God’s creation of day and night meant before three days before the creation of the sun and the moon. If you made no allowance for some hyperbole and poetic licence in the book of Exodus, you might have trouble making sense of the fact that all the animals of the Egyptians died of disease, and then after they had all died, they all got boils, then all the ones in the open got killed in a hail storm and then finally all the first born ones got killed by the angel of death. I’ve heard of cats having nine lives, but sheep, cattle and donkeys?

But it doesn’t mean the Bible is not true. You can’t say that the Bible is not true just because it doesn’t meet some externally imposed criteria of chronological accuracy, any more than you can say that Dayo is a liar because he once said he was so hungry he could eat a horse, when he and everybody else knew that he could not eat a horse. When Christ speaks to us through the Bible, it is just as full of figures of speech, in jokes, generalisations and rhetorical flourishes as what anybody else says to us. And there is only one way of getting to be able to naturally and readily make sense of it all and that is to get to know the speaker. To get to know Christ, to know him well, to trust him and become familiar with his voice.

You don’t need to do a theology degree to do this. You don’t need to learn all the literary theories and the social background to every text. When you were twelve months old you didn’t learn to understand what everyone else was saying by enrolling in first year English at Melbourne University. You just listened lots and mimicked lots and gradually it all made sense. Academic study of the Bible is important, and we would be a lot poorer if it wasn’t for the people who do it. But academic study on its own will not bring us closer to Jesus Christ.

If you want to know Jesus Christ, you need to pray, and you need to read the Bible prayerfully and regularly. You need to sit down with the Bible and offer to listen and act if Christ wants to speak to you through it. Let me read you an example. (Richard Foster, Prayer, p. 150-152)

The Bible is true, because it does that to people. The Bible is true because it makes sense of who you are and how we live and what it all means. It is powerful and true because through it you can encounter the living Christ who will take you and transform you.

Did this event actually happen, just the way Luke records it. I don’t know, it may be true in that way too, but primarily it is true because that is what happens again and again to us and others. We sit hiding behind locked doors with our fears, and the Christ appears and enables us to see the message of the Bible in a new light and it liberates us to live in new hope and joy. The story is a true parable of what happens to us and how. It may be history too, but we don’t gather here to read history. We gather here to encounter the risen Christ, who heals our doubts, calms our fears, opens our minds and fills us with life. And the better we get to know this Christ, and the better we get to know his manner of speech in this book, the more fully that life giving word will penetrate our previously Bible-proofed minds.


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