Sermon from June 27, 2021
9 Do your best to come to me soon, 10 for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia,[a] Titus to Dalmatia. 11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. 12 I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. 14 Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. 15 You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.
2 Timothy 4:9-15
This is the final week of our sermon series on how to understand the different types of stories found in the Bible. For those who may have missed a week or two, this series is based on the book “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again” by Rachel Held Evans. The other sermons about origin stories, deliverance stories, war stories, resistance stories, gospel stories, and fish stories can be found on our church website.
I am sad to be at the end of this book, because I have really enjoyed going through the Bible from front to back, identifying why certain texts were included in our holy text. I hope that you have found it meaningful as well, and if you have, I invite you to get a copy of the book. There is so much more included in it than I was able to unpack in a sermon series.
We close this morning with the topic of “Church Stories,” the stories in the Bible that tell of the time after Jesus’ life on Earth. The majority of these texts are actually letters that were written by authors that, as Rachel put it, “did not consider their letters to be Scripture at the time, nor did the recipients. The concerns of the world’s first Christians were far more practical: how to get financial support for ministry, how to respond to arguments that Gentile converts needed to be circumcised, what to do with the influx of poor widows joining the church, which Roman laws to observe and which to challenge, and most important, how to foster theological and communal unity between Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, men and women, new converts and mature Christians.”
The letters included in the Bible help us to understand how the church got started, where our traditions come from, and what issues the early Christians were faced with. However, we also have to remember that they weren’t written to us. They were written in a specific time, to a specific group of people, and for a specific reason. Some of them hold wisdom and knowledge that are important for today’s Christians to follow, but there are also verses in there that do not have timeless value.
Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton put it this way: “When you read one of Paul’s letters, or any other New Testament letter, you are reading someone else’s mail. Christians often forget this. They read Paul’s letters as though he wrote just for them. This works fine most of the time; Paul’s instructions, his theological reflections, and his practical concerns are amazingly timeless. But they become most meaningful and we are least likely to misapply their teaching, when we seek to understand why he may have written this or that to a given church.”
We can be reminded that these were personal communications when we come across scriptures like the one I read this morning, where Paul asked Timothy to come to him and bring his cloak, and to beware of Alexander the Coppersmith who sounds like he was a really shady character.
In another example from the book of Titus, Paul wrote that, “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons. This saying is true.” Paul wrote this because he was angry that there were false teachings about Christianity coming out of the island of Crete in the Mediterranean, but it certainly wasn’t meant to be held in the same reverence as the teachings of Jesus. As Rachel puts it in the book, we aren’t being called by these texts to picket with signs saying that “God hates Crete.”
So, the issue then becomes, what pieces of these texts are important for us to apply to our context today, and what were meant for only a first century audience?
A couple of years ago, I was the Associate Minister at a church in Kansas City. When the Senior Minister was gone for his sabbatical, I filled in as the solo Minister. I will never forget an encounter I had with a man who came looking to talk with the pastor, and who was appalled when he found out that I was the acting Minister of the congregation. He told me that the Bible clearly says that women should not be in ministry or teach men. I responded that I would be happy to talk with him about whatever he needed prayer for, but that there were other churches with male ministers that he could go to if he didn’t want to speak with me. He turned around and left.
Ask any female minister and they probably have a similar story. The Pauline Letters have been used to justify slavery, to condone sexism, and especially to condemn the LGBTQ community. It’s true that if you are looking for justification for hatred and inequality in the church, you can find it in the Bible, particularly in the epistles. However, when you read scripture with the Bible in one hand and a history book in the other, learning from the original language, the societal values of the time, and the context of these verses it is clear that they do not address a culture which valued women, people of color, and the lgbtq community. We have come a long way since the days of the early church. Our understanding of diversity and inclusion has changed, as has our understanding of who God is.
For this reason, a lot of people would prefer to forget Paul’s teachings altogether. But I don’t think that that is the answer. Paul is considered an important figure of early Christianity for a reason. Rachel put it this way:
“When we unmoor the Epistles from their larger story, we tend to think of Paul as a disembodied voice affirming or unsettling our own points of view, rather than a religious, first-century Jew whose life was expanded by an encounter with Jesus Christ.”
“As it turns out,” she continues, “…the letters of Paul weren’t written by a crochety misogynist intent on regulating the behaviors of women and minorities for millennia to come, nor were they composed by a godlike philosopher disseminating soteriological truths into the universe from an ivory tower. The apostle Paul was a smart, worldly, and broad-minded Jew who had been utterly transformed by what he saw as his singular mission in life: to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and welcome them in to Israel’s story. In pursuit of this mission, Paul was determined to break down every religious, ethnic, and cultural barrier that stood in the way.”
Paul’s mission was to spread the good news that the gospel was for all people in all nations. When taken out of their context his words can be used against minority groups, but in his day he was seen as radically inclusive. It was Paul who wrote that there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, and no man or woman for all are one in Christ. He encouraged women to have an active role in the church. In several scriptures he referred to women as equals, co-workers in the mission of the gospel. He considered many women to be friends, apostles, and teachers.
According to Rachel, “The degree to which Paul reinforced traditional gender roles in his letters varies from church to church and city to city. In places where women in leadership assisted in the spreading of the gospel, Paul encouraged it: where it might prove too disruptive or confusing, he discouraged it.”
So, for example, in the letter to the Corinthians when Paul wrote: “Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” Rachel says the true “…question is not, Are head coverings good or bad? The question is, in that context, Did head coverings help or hurt the advancement of the gospel and the preservation of unity?” Likewise, as we consider other questions and rules found in the Epistles, we should be thinking critically about why they were included in the first place and whether or not they are still applicable to us today.
Twenty-first century Christians have different lives, cultures, and societal norms than first century Christians, but we are united by a desire to follow the example that Jesus set for us. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love one another. So, when I am trying to understand what God wants me to do in a certain situation, I always try to come back to love. What is the loving response to this question? How do I act with love in this situation? Does this scripture reflect my understanding of a loving God? And if the answer is no, then I need to consider how to bring my focus back to love.
In our church we believe that God is still speaking, and this means that God is speaking to us today through everything. Through science and nature and art and music and the beautiful diversity of cultures and identities present in our world. We are called to listen for what God is saying today, and apply that to our understanding of how to live as Christians in today’s world.
May we be people who think critically, who love widely, and who follow Jesus’s example in our world today. Amen.