Rev. Teri Peterson
Many Other Things
John 16.12-13, 20.30-31, 21.25
27 July 2014, Faith Questions 6
Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
Many of you know that I did not grow up in the church. When I was 15, I had plans that involved studying both music and English Literature in college. I figured I could easily double major, because I liked and was good at both those things, and neither one would get me a job, so surely there must be time for both. I spent a lot of time reading and writing. But it wasn’t long into my journey with classic and important literature and music that I figured out that I was missing something. I was missing the undertones, the subtext, the metaphor, the language and background that authors and composers assumed people would have. So I decided that I was going to have to read the Bible. Otherwise, I would spend a lot of time wondering what characters were talking about or why things were important. So I started reading. At the beginning. And at the rate of about 5 chapters per day, I read straight through this book from beginning to end.
It was a weird book. Repetitive in parts, confusing in parts, and downright disturbing sometimes. It had stories of lying, murder, seduction, despair, hope, coming-of-age, and traveling adventures. One day it was like Swiss Family Robinson, and the next day it was Agatha Christie, and the next day it was worse than trying to read the Waterloo section of Les Mis in French. Which, of course, is because the Bible isn’t just one book, it’s dozens—more like a library than a novel. The story arc weaves in and out throughout the history and mythology and weird social contracts to create something I’d never experienced before. What made it even stranger was that by the time I got near the end, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t just a good story. There was something more to this God-story, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, besides to say that I thought it might just be True.
Now, I’m one of those people who gets sucked in to a good story. The worlds that authors create can be very compelling, and it’s difficult sometimes to remember that there really aren’t wizards and witches cloaking themselves from our eyes or Time Lords winging their way through the universe…probably. So it wasn’t surprising to me when I first felt that the story of God and God’s people was maybe more than just a good story. What was surprising was that the feeling held on, even as I turned to other books with other worlds and their stories. There was something about this library that held this particular story of this particular people. It wasn’t just another novel. When I eventually went to church, I used to say that I was Presbyterian in part because I was converted by the scriptures—reading the Bible was the beginning of my journey with God.
For the first 300 years of the church, there was disagreement about what should be in the library we now call Scripture—there are still a few books that various denominations disagree about! And then until the printing press and the Protestant Reformation, it was unheard of for regular people to read anything, especially the Bible, for themselves. We lowly ones can’t be trusted with the sacred words—they’re holy and full of God’s own writing! But then along come Gutenberg and Luther and Calvin and Knox, and suddenly we can read the word of God, and learn it, and encounter the Living Word in it, ourselves. It’s out in the open, like any other book…but it isn’t just like any other book. When Paul writes to Timothy that “all scripture is inspired by God and useful,” which scripture is he talking about? Is he just talking about the Hebrew Bible, which was pretty well agreed upon by then? Is he thinking that the letter he’s writing might one day be considered Inspired—literally breathed by God? Does he know about how confusing it will be for one page to commend the women preachers and another to command women to be silent? If all scripture is the very breath of God, the word of God, then what about the books and letters that got left out? What about that part where Jesus said that the Spirit would reveal other truths later on down the road, and where the gospels themselves tell us that they aren’t an exhaustive catalog of everything Jesus said and did? What about the stories that reveal just as much about the time and culture and people as they do about God? How can it be the breathy word of God if it reads more like it’s written by a bunch of guys perfecting their family’s campfire stories than like lightning bolts streaming from God’s fingertips?
Well, in short, because it can be both of those things at the same time.
The Bible is the story of God and God’s people—through good and bad times, through untimely relocations and strange family trees and sibling feuds and inside jokes, through flood and drought and good ideas and bad ideas, through times of widening the gap between humans and God and times of God closing the gap sometimes slower than a snail and sometimes faster than the sun can rise. Those stories are the stuff of every family reunion, and this library is our set of family stories—it tells us who we are, and who God is, and how our family has worked out a life with God and with each other in all kinds of situations and circumstances. It’s written by people, like any family story, but the breath of God flows through the words in ways that open up Truth and Love and Real Life that novelists can’t even imagine. So it is all useful for learning how to be in right relationship and for correcting our course, because each story points the way—there’s nothing in there that is an end in itself. The written word points us to the Living Word, about whom the world could not contain all the books that could be written, and who came that all—whether we are in this sheepfold or another—may have abundant life. Instead of more books to fill the shelves, that Living Word gave the world something else—something living and breathing and moving…the Spirit, who continually whispers God’s word to us, offering guidance and comfort and challenge.
In scripture, God is telling a story of love speaking and acting, calling together flawed people to create something beautiful, a story of the Kingdom of God breaking into the world, little by little. It is a story that reveals God’s purpose and calls us to trust God enough to participate in that mission. Everything we need in order to see God in Christ is there. Scripture is a complete picture. And yet God’s story is not finished—it is still being told in every breath, every act of love, every word of kindness, every hand reaching out, every voice lifted in song, every prayer said and every loaf of bread broken. We hear God’s word through the confessions written by faithful people throughout the church’s history—though they are not scripture, they do point to God and help us know more of the truth that the Spirit is still revealing. God’s story is still being told every time we open the book that is our foundation, and every time we build on that foundation. Just as Jesus did and said many other things, so the Spirit is still busy sharing the many other things God has to say to us and through us. For the word of God is for every time and every place—and sometimes we hear it through words on a page, and sometimes we hear it through the voice of a child, sometimes we hear it through the scraping of real forks on real plates, and sometimes we hear it in the silence of a sanctuary.
Every week we use that response after the scripture reading—for the word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us. Every week we are reminded that we can hear the voice of God through stories told long ago and through listening carefully in our own lives and relationships. Our God is one who speaks—not just in the past, but in the present.
Or, as the United Church of Christ advertising campaign says, “God is still speaking.”
As people of the Reformed Christian tradition, we say it like this: “reformed and always being reformed by the word of God.” That is part of why that Book of Confessions matters—it gives us a map of how the word of God has continued to be active in the church, and from that map we can learn and grow and walk the path that is laid before us in this time and place.
It’s amazing to think that every time we come to scripture, God gives us something new, even thousands of years after the words were first spoken or written. God reveals the truth to us, little by little, every time we come to the word—maybe partly as an incentive to keep reading and listening! In prayer, in reading, in seeking together in community, we can hear God’s voice again and again, in our own heart’s language. Not just words on a page, not just long ago in a place far away, but even right now, God is still speaking. Or, as Jesus put it, The Spirit is still whispering through these ancient words, in our ears and in our hearts, telling us God’s good news and God’s plans.
May we listen, hear, and obey.