If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, October 6, 2014

Interpreting the Bible in Community: Acts 2:42-47, 8:26-40, 17:10-12; 1 Cor. 14:26-33

*This sermon was presented in a series "Scripture and Interpretation" for World Communion Sunday, October 5, 2014 at Albany Mennonite Church. The communion service is included below. The focus of communion was upon peace and justice.

In my seminary study I came across an interesting tract, written by Reformer Henry Bullinger against the 16th century Anabaptists. It answers the question: Why don’t Anabaptists attend the state churches? In this 1530 tract Bullinger notes that the major reason Anabaptists didn’t attend the state churches was because the state churches didn’t allow the congregation to respond to the preacher. According to the Anabaptists, the state churches did not practice the Rule of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14, that is, they didn’t allow the people to participate in the worship, preaching, and interpreting of scripture. The Anabaptists said:

When someone comes to church and constantly hears only one person speaking, and all the listeners are silent… who can ... regard it to be a spiritual congregation?

The Anabaptists encouraged reading scripture together and discussing the Bible with one another in discerning its meaning. This 16th century tract is evidence of the practice of communal interpretation of the Bible among the early Anabaptists.

Interpreting the Bible in community was also a practice among the Jews and the early disciples of Jesus. As we read in the book of Acts the Jews and the early disciples were directly involved in the study, discussion, and interpretation of their sacred texts. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. They conversed with one another interpreting texts from the Hebrew Scriptures, as in the case of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Philip, dear Philip. What kind of Bible study have you gotten yourself involved in? You should have thought twice about accepting the invitation to interpret the scriptures with an Ethiopian eunuch. Imagine this; Philip was involved in a Bible study with a non-Christian foreigner who was an educated banker, Bible-reading Gentile, well-to-do black slave, personal assistant to a Queen, who had an ambiguous gender, an atypical sexual identity, and who was thus excluded from the church (or should I say “temple”)! Talk about your diversity within a Bible study! And all wrapped up in one person! So, who might we dare include in our Bible studies? Who knows, we might end up baptizing some unexpected, marginalized people! And they might even end up becoming part of the church! God help us…to do that!

Further on in Acts, Paul argued in the synagogue from the scriptures concerning a new interpretation of a suffering Messiah. By the way, a suffering Christ was not the traditional Jewish way to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures about the Messiah.  Together the Jews at Berea examined the scriptures to see whether or not what Paul said was so. These instances of biblical interpretation indicate there wasn’t simply one voice, but a multi-voiced conversation around the scriptures, discerning their meaning.

Even as the church began meeting in the homes of some wealthier believers, interpretation of scriptures was a shared conversation. From the church at Corinth we learn of the informal, charismatic, conversational, and participatory nature of the worship of the early church. What some call the “Rule of Paul” in 1 Corinthians 14 are guidelines for the congregation to share in an orderly manner in the worship, which was often referenced by early Anabaptists. Some came with a prophecy or a lesson or a hymn or a tongue or an interpretation. And we know the women were prophesying like it was no man’s business, because Paul tried to forbid them from speaking!

The people, men and women, at Corinth participated in the hearing and sharing of God’s Word spoken in spirited prophecy and interpreted together the meaning of the scriptures. Interpreting the scripture in community was a practice of the early church.

Anabaptists were known for their emphasis on interpreting the Bible in community. When I first started studying the early Anabaptists and Mennonite theology I came across this concept of “a hermeneutic of community.” I understood that to mean that the gathered congregation is the primary location of biblical interpretation. This understanding was not totally unique to our tradition, but it stood out as a key element in how our tradition approaches the interpretation of the Bible. Further study led me to propose that from an Anabaptist perspective both preaching and interpretation of the Bible are communal and conversational practices. What I discovered was that the Anabaptists practiced a congregational form of interpretation by allowing participation in their informal style of worship, as portrayed in 1 Corinthian 14. Interaction with the preaching or teaching was expected. The words of Anabaptist leaders were not considered the final word of truth. The leaders themselves invited the community to correct anything that they taught. Interpreting the scriptures was not left to the scholars, was not constricted by the church’s traditions, or primarily an individual discipline. It was a communal and interactive practice.

Contemporary churches around the world are recapturing the practice of interpreting the Bible in and for the believing community.  This is happening in the midst of several trends that have worked against interpreting in community. Western culture, with its emphasis on individualism, has tended to place the Bible in the hands of the isolated reader. Devotional Bible study epitomizes an American approach to scripture. It emphasizes interpreting the Bible on my own and for myself. To interpret the Bible within and for the church as a body is a practice that needs to be recovered not only in the US, but also in the worldwide church.

This recovery is taking place in new and exciting ways within the worldwide church. For some time now base communities in Latin American have been opening the Bible in small groups and interpreting the Bible for their people and their context. The Gospel of Solentiname includes the transcripts of communal interpretation of Gospel texts led by Roman Catholic priest Ernesto Cardenal. Gerald West, a Bible scholar, has instigated dialogical interpretation or “reading with” strategies in South Africa. Emerging churches in the US, drawing from the wells of Anabaptism, are practicing more collective approaches to reading scripture. One of your adult Bible study classes is going through the book “Free for All,” written by leaders of young emerging churches seeking to read scripture in community.

It is my conviction that our practice of interpreting the Bible in community needs to bring the diversity of our own communities and the worldwide church into our circle of biblical interpretation. Like Philip, we need to have someone like the Ethiopian eunuch, or better yet, the diversity he represents, in our interpretive conversation. Interpreting the Bible with our ears leaning toward toward the African-American, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American communities can help us hear what God is saying to us from these texts today. We definitely need to converse with the poor and homeless, so that we interpret the Bible rightly, particularly since the Bible was written from within peasant societies. Living within a culture of relative wealth can skew our interpretations of the Bible.

We may not always be able to literally bring the world into our congregation, but we can include the diversity of the world in our interpretive conversation through written and recorded testimonies or biblical interpretations from diverse social, political, and cultural contexts. The Bible is not bound to one gender, sexuality, class, race, culture, or nationality. We need to bring the world into our interpretive conversation.  

Praise be to God! There is the church around the world to converse with around the Bible, so that we may fully and clearly hear what God is saying to all of God’s diverse people today.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

Opening Prayer

God of all nations and peoples, we gather together as your people today in unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. As we share in communion with the global church this day, may our eyes be opened to realize that all walls and borders between us have been broken down in Christ. As we break the bread of life in scripture, may our hearts burn within us with your truth. As we sing our hymns, may we remember the many tongues that offer you praise in other cultures. As we pray for one another, may we remember that there is a world of people beyond us that are in need. As we go from this sacred place today, may our world be a little larger, our faith a little stronger, our love a little deeper. In the name of the universal Christ we pray. Amen.

The Table of Peace

We gather around the communion table on this World Communion Sunday with our eyes focused upon the dimensions of peace and justice within this meal, one among many themes of the supper. The supper of Jesus finds its origins in political liberation. The Passover was a ritual meal celebrating God’s liberation of Israel from bondage to the Egyptian empire. The supper we celebrate is in remembrance of Jesus who lived and taught the way of peace and God’s reign over all kingdoms and who was crucified by the powers of the Roman Empire.  Jesus’ supper reminds us of the other meals he shared. At his open table he welcomed the stranger and outcast and fed the poor and hungry multitudes. Jesus’ meals foreshadow the final meal of God’s kingdom, when all tribes, tongues, and nations will dine together at the feast of the slain Lamb, when peace shall reign over the earth and justice will flow down like a stream. This is a rather subversive meal!

Today we celebrate our unity and peace in Christ by breaking the bread and sharing the cup. Communion is a ritual of peace in many ways. Through sharing in the bread and cup we remember and participate in the body and blood of Christ. Rather than lead an armed rebellion against the forces of Rome or call down an army of angels, Jesus took the nonviolent way of the cross, even unto death. His life and death offers liberation from the way of violence by exposing its folly and futility. Through the resurrection God vindicated Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign over that of Caesar and his choice of a nonviolent death over violence. In the bread and cup we remember and participate in Christ and his way of peace.

Ephesians 2 teaches us that through the blood of the cross the walls that divide us as differing people and cultures have been broken down. Jesus is our peace. He came and proclaimed peace to those far off and those near. We are no longer strangers but citizens and members of the common household of God. We remember in the bread and cup that in Christ we are one people, no longer divided by the walls or borders that separate us as nations. We who are in Christ are no longer Americans or Iraqis or Mexicans or Africans. We are one in Christ. We are citizens of God’s new country, one people through the reconciling work of Christ.

So, in sharing the bread and cup we feed upon Christ, who took upon himself the nonviolent way that led to the cross. In sharing the bread and cup we remember that we are a worldwide church bound together in Christ, a bond that transcends national and political boundaries and therefore calls us to live in peace with one another.

Communion Prayer

May this prayer be our call to unity and peace. It is a prayer from the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, one of the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament:

Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills,
and was gathered together to become one,
so let the church be gathered together
from the ends of the earth into your kingdom
For yours is the glory and the power
through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.

Confession and Reconciliation

In his instructions on celebrating communion the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians about not eating the bread and drinking the cup in an unworthy manner. Examine yourselves and discern the body. We have taken this to mean that we reflect on our own sins and discern Christ’s body in communion. This is partially true, we should examine our relationship to Christ symbolized in the bread and cup. But, also in the context of the divisions and conflicts within the church, Paul was addressing the need for the church to examine themselves as a collective group and discern the body of Christ, the church. How can they partake of the one bread in remembrance of the one body of Christ when they are divided and in conflict? Therefore, self-examination, confession, and reconciliation is to precede partaking of the bread and cup.

Jesus said, “If you bring your gift before the altar and there remember that you have something against a brother or sister, first go and be reconciled and then come and offer your gift.” As we share in these gifts of God brought before us, if we need to be reconciled, even now at this moment, go to that person and be reconciled in order to partake of the one body and blood of Christ in a manner worthy of our call to unity and peace.

Silent Prayer

Assurance of Forgiveness

If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Amen.

Taking, Blessing, Breaking the Bread

I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night Jesus was betrayed he took bread took bread, and he gave thanks…

Baruch atah Adonai elohenu, melek ha olam, ha motzi lehem min ha aretz
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

And when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Taking, Blessing the Cup

In the same way he also took the cup, after supper, and blessed it.

Baruch atah Adonai elohenu, melek ha olam, boray peri hagaphen
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Invitation to the Table

Come, for everything is now ready. God calls you to the welcoming table of peace. The gifts of God for the people of God.

Sharing Communion

*Communion was shared by "intinction" (dipping the bread) between partners at several tables while music and photos of Christians from diverse cultures were projected on the wall.

Communion blessing

For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

The Peacemaker’s Creed- written by Leo Hartshorn
We believe in God, creator of heaven and earth
            who calls us to care for the earth
            who is the maker of shalom
            who commanded his people not to kill
            who shatters the spear
            and beats swords into plowshares
We believe in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace
            who blessed the peacemakers
who taught his disciples to love their enemies
            who told Peter to put away the sword
            who took the nonviolent way of the cross
            and was raised by God to vindicate his way of peace
We believe in the Holy Spirit
            who breaks down the walls that divide us
            who empowers us to overturn the tables of injustice
            who lets justice roll down like waters
            who liberates the captives
and sets the prisoners free
We believe in the church universal
            which is God’s beloved community
which transcends all nations, politics, and cultures
            which calls us to unity
            which follows the nonviolent way of Jesus
            and proclaims the gospel of peace
We believe in the reign of God
            when the lion will lie down with the lamb
            when people from every nation, tribe, and tongue will worship the Lamb of God
            when everyone will sit at the welcoming table
            when the last will be first, the rich will be poor, the outsiders will be insiders
            and peace and justice will reign over all the earth

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