Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Living Words

(This is a modified version of a post I wrote a few years ago.)

A sacrament is a material object or action that God has chosen, in his complete freedom, to use as a conduit for his grace. The Christian movement has revolved around sacraments from its start. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions teach 7 sacraments -- baptism, confirmation (called "chrismation" in Orthodox churches), communion, holy orders, penance, anointing of the sick, and marriage. Meanwhile, most Protestants only observe the two specifically set up by Jesus of Nazareth, baptism and communion. Down through the ages innumerable followers of Jesus have attested to the mystical power resident in these simple things.

But you may have another sacrament sitting on your bookshelf. The Bible has always worked like a sacrament in the Community of Jesus -- a physical book that God uses to convey his free, unearned, transforming power and kindness to his wayward children.

Instruction Book?

Here in the western world there is a tendency, based on thinking that goes back to the Enlightenment, to see the universe mechanically. We assume that everything operates like an impersonal machine and if we can just understand the mechanism we can make it work. All we need is an instruction book.

It is popular, particularly in Western Protestantism, to think of the Bible as a kind of super instruction book. All we need to do is memorize the important dates and grasp the formulas, and we'll be able to make our religion "work." And of course, there definitely is quite a bit of wise advice and uplifting insight in Scripture. But the Bible does not purport to be just a wise and wonderful book; it purports to be revelation, a living entity through which the Holy Spirit of God speaks -- in the present tense. Just as Jesus of Nazareth was not just a wise and wonderful teacher but the unique revelation of the Living God.

Jesus taught that King David wrote his Psalms "by the Holy Spirit" (Gospel of Mark chapter 12, verses 35 - 37), and that Israel's holy books were filled with, "things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets," (Gospel of Luke chapter 24, verses 27 and 44 - 47 ERV).

The early Christian movement believed "[Moses] received life-giving words (literally, "living words") from God to give to us", (Acts of the Apostles chapter 7, verse 38 ERV). For them -- and for us -- "God’s word is alive and working. It is sharper than the sharpest sword and cuts all the way into us. It cuts deep to the place where the soul and the spirit are joined. God’s word cuts to the center of our joints and our bones. It judges the thoughts and feelings in our hearts." (Letter to the Hebrews chapter 4, verse 12 ERV).

As the scholar J. N. D. Kelly wrote, "Whenever our Lord and His apostles quoted the Old Testament, it is plain that they regarded it as the word of God," (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 60). It was the same with the Apostle's writings by the time the last one died, because the Jesus followers recognized that they carried the revelation that the Messiah had entrusted them with (p. 56).

Not a Normal Book

What I'm suggesting is that nice leather-bound book you have on your desk or in your car is not just a book: It is something that intelligent 21st century people get vaguely uncomfortable with, something that some scholars devote their lives to showing it is not.

It's supernatural.

When we crack our Bibles open we are exposing ourselves to the creative power of God's own being, as God wants us to experience it. Reading the Scriptures, as John Wesley used to say, is a "means of grace," a sacrament that connects us with God. And then anything can happen.

Modern people aren't supposed to think that way. We can explain all that miraculous stuff away with our current understandings, can't we? There's no need to go there, surely.

But as C. S. Lewis wrote, "Like it or not, you belong to a supernatural religion."

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