Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Good Book? - Richard R. Crocker

The Good Book
Rollins Chapel
Richard R. Crocker
March 6, 2011
Luke 28:44-48

Many people who have actually read the Bible through – I mean completely through, not in bits and snatches, wonder why it is often called “The Good Book.” Most of us read the Bible quite selectively. We learn “Bible stories” in Sunday school. If we hear scripture read during worship, it usually comes from a lectionary which emphasizes certain parts of scripture and leaves out others altogether. Fundamentalists (of all kinds) often tell us that we cannot “pick and choose” when we read the Bible – but we must take all of it as equally inspired, equally valuable, and equally authoritative. I find that many of those who argue from such a position either (1) have not in fact read the whole Bible, and (2) have their own favorite passages upon which they erected their whole theology, while ignoring contrasting points of view.

To read the whole Bible is to encounter a confusing, complex, and sometimes dreadful text. The passages that bring us comfort, that declare the sovereignty of a loving and merciful God, are interspersed with passages that should cause any contemporary reader, whether Jew, Christian, or simply human, to blanche, or to recoil in horror Thus, for example, many of the stories of the kings of Israel depict God as commanding the complete extermination of his enemies. Even the story of Noah and the ark, taught to us all in Sunday school, is presented as a story of comfort: God will not totally destroy the people of the earth, we are told, and a rainbow is the sign of that promise. But this comes only after God has already destroyed all human beings, except Noah and his family, and all creatures, except two of each kind. I could go on – but my point is not how many such stories are part of our sacred scripture, but that some are. How could we then overlook such passages to call the Bible the good book?

The answers to that question vary, according to the sensibilities of the age. You remember, perhaps, the words of Thomas Hobbes ( Leviathan - 1651), when he described “the state of nature” before law – civil and ecclesiastical – was introduced: "Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short. Such a description of life, unfortunately, still prevails in parts of the world. When people describe the Bible as the good book, some may mean that it is the book of law, ritual and moral law that has enabled human beings to live together more peacefully. Certainly, in western history, that is the case. There is no doubt that our civilization has grown more humane and more just as the concept of moral law, anchored in the loving nature of God, has taken root. But any reading of the newspaper today will show how fragile and incomplete is that conception.

For Christians, at least for some Christians, and at least for me, the Bible is the good book because it tells us about Jesus, who is, in our view, the fulfillment of the law and the inspiration for a continually growing sense of universal human love and mutual responsibility. The passage from Luke, which we read, contains the words of the risen Christ as he explains to his disciples how all the scriptures lead to him, and that a proper understanding of scripture must be read through the lens of his teachings, his life, his death, and his resurrection. Certainly it is this hope and conviction, that the loving acts of God are fully displayed in Jesus Christ, that have convinced many of us to call this “ the good book”, containing the gospels, which means good news. The good news is that "repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
And so it happened that the good news was proclaimed in Jerusalem, and beyond - in Europe, in Hanover, and in my home town of Thomaston, Alabama. There is a story circulating about Karl Barth, one of the most prolific and influential theologians of the 20th century, who in one of his visits to America, was asked by a reporter if he could summarize the theology that he had written in over 20 volumes. He replied: “Jesus loves me This I Know, for the Bible tells me so.” This was the song that we sang tirelessly in Sunday school as a child. It was a summary of the good news, as proclaimed in everywhere .You probably know it.
Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong. They are weak but he is strong.

It was written, I’m told, by Anna Warner in 1860 and popularized soon thereafter. Ms. Warner lived near the US Military Academy, where her uncle was chaplain. She conducted Sunday school classes each week, in her home, for the cadets. The song has many verses.

Here are the other ones I remember:

Jesus loves me! He who died heavens gates to open wide He will wash away my sin, Let his little child some in.

It’s the third verse where the controversy begins.
Jesus loves me, he will stay, close beside me all the way. If I love him when I die, he will take me home on high. If I love him when I die is conditional, isn’t it. In most modern hymnals, the verse has been changed. It now reads “Jesus loves me, he will stay close beside me all the way. When at last I come to die he will take me home on high.” The new version is not conditional. This verse – in its original form, and in its altered form, - reflects the major point of debate in Christian theology.

Why is the Bible the good book? Because it proclaims a God, revealed in Jesus Christ, as the one who loves us – yea even me. And it is only truly good news if it is for us all.

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