“According to the Scriptures” is not “according to the rules”

As I was driving home from Chicago yesterday, I was listening to historian and biblical scholar N. T. Wright, Anglican bishop and prolific writer on the scriptures.  He is one of my favorite reads when it comes to New Testament commentators.  I was listening to his THE CHALLENGE OF JESUS.   One of the points he makes quite strongly is that when St. Paul says that the death and resurrection of Christ happened “according to the scriptures,” Paul is not proof texting with exact one verse quotes in mind.  This sound bite thinking which so shapes our modern world causes us to lose sight of big picture issues and the deeper spiritual truths of God.  “According to the scriptures” means just that – all of them, not necessarily one exact verse, but sometimes refers to images and metaphors, and stories and the meta-story which make up the entirety of the Old Testament.  The effort to find one exact verse in the Old Testament to correspond to each New Testament claim of fulfilling prophecy is to embrace disjointed thinking and taking phrases out of contest to try to prove a point.  This is why it is important to read the entire scriptures and understand them as a whole rather than picking and choosing texts as if each is a rune which can be used as a talisman to guide one’s daily life.  The scriptures tell the meta-story of humanity and are not a mere collection of unrelated and individuated aphorisms.  Too often people read the Scriptures thinking they can just randomly point to any text and magically get guidance from it without having to have any knowledge of the whole text.

Imagine if each NFL player did this for each game – each randomly opening the rules book and pointing to a rule and trying to follow that one rule during the game while ignoring or being left unfamiliar with all other rules.  Even if each player knew 20 random rules, the game of football could not be played, as none of them would have any sense of the overall idea of the purpose of the game and so each would only be capable of random acts “according to the rules.”  So why do we imagine that Christians can understand scripture by proof texting or by adhering to specific verses in scripture while ignoring all other texts or the big picture of what the Bible is actually revealing?

N.T. Wright also made a comment, which I must paraphrase as I listened to the text but don’t have an exact quote to which to refer.  It is a comment that helps us understand the role that liturgy plays in opening our hearts and minds to an understanding of the scriptures.   It also gives us a sense of the importance of symbol, and metaphor, and figurative language.  When a famous dancer once was told her dance was beautiful but asked to explain “what did it mean?”, she replied, “If I could have explained it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it.”   The Word of God is meant to engage our entire being – not just our eyes or our minds, but our hearts, ears, soul, and our human nature.  Wright points out that our modern outlook on things since the time of the 18th Century Enlightenment has so overemphasized facts as the only way to know truth, that it has lost sight of the many ways in which humans engage the world and experience truth.  “Beauty will save the world,” wrote Dostoyevsky.   Our goal as Christians is to restore humanity to wholeness, to be able to experience the entire universe as a revelation of God, and to live in that universe as the bearers of God’s image and spiritual gifts.  The reason to encounter the Word of God in liturgy is that it enables us to experience the Word in community rather than as isolated, broken individuals, and in a ritual of movement, color, sound, smell, and emotion – to experience it as creation revealing God to us as was intended by God in paradise.

See also my “Let there Be Light”

The Humble Commander

The merciful & humble Centurion   Matthew 8:5-13   Sermon Notes from July 1989

 ROMANS 12:16  “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”
EPHESIANS 4:2   “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. ”
PHILIPPIANS 2:3  “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. ”
COLOSSIANS 3:12  “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”
1 PETER 5:5-6  “Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”

I want you all today to consider the wonderful gift of humility.  Being humble is a spiritual gift from God.  God frequently gives the gift of humility to those who He will especially chose to lead His people.  Moses, that great man of God is described in the Old Testament as the most humble man who ever lived.  And the blessed Virgin mother of Christ, Mary, is chosen by God because she is humble.  The great and powerful God chooses the humble to reveal Himself to the world.

Now consider today’s Gospel lesson.  A centurion, a Roman army officer, comes to see Jesus.  He is a man in authority and rightfully expects his wishes to be obeyed.   He is part of the conquering Roman empire.  Jesus is one poor conquered Jew, with no human authority, no power, no prestige.  The Centurion is used to giving commands, which others must obey.  The Centurion is used to ordering his soldiers and servants around to serve him.
Now admire this powerful, commanding and victorious soldier, for in our lesson, he becomes a model of humility.  The Centurion who is used to commanding others to do his bidding, goes forth in humility to seek Christ. The soldier who is used to having others come to him to beg for mercy, goes begging mercy from Christ.

The commander who is used to having servants obey his messages, goes forth to carry a message for his servant.  The man who is tended to by servants, now goes forth to serve his servant.    A soldier who had conquered the Jews, admits he is not worthy to have Jesus the Jew come into his house.   My friends think about the centurion’s humility.  He shows great compassion for someone who suffers.  This soldier becomes an intercessor for his beloved slave.  This commander recognizes that he is unworthy to have Jesus the Messiah in his home.  This conquering soldier is not loud, boastful, demanding.  He comes quietly to Jesus, begging for mercy, not for himself but for his servant.  Serving others, the sense of unworthiness, being quiet, realizing that others are greater than yourself, not demanding your own way.  I encourage you to look at yourself, and how you approach Christ in your neighbors and family.  I encourage you to develop that deep sense of humility, realizing your own sins and faults, being patient with others, not demanding your own way but always being willing to serve.