In July we’re tracking our way through the lectionary epistle, Colossians. The text this Sunday was Colossians 1.15-29.
It happened over a month ago, but I haven’t preached in a while and it’s stuck in my craw this whole time the way sunflower seeds leave little nagging cuts in your gums.
The night after the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, a baptist preacher all the way on the other side of the country, in Sacramento, California, stood up in a pulpit just like this one, in a sanctuary just like this one, and he preached an impassioned sermon (just like this one).
A sermon praising– praising- (I’ll repeat it again just so you don’t miss the tone: praising) the brutal massacre of gay nightclubbers in Florida.
Preaching, the “Reverend” Roger Jimenez exhorted his congregation of bible-believing baptists that “Christians should not mourn the death of 50 sodomites.”
“No,” he qualified, “I think that’s great. I think that helps society. I think Orlando is better off tonight.”
“The tragedy in Orlando,” I’m still quoting here, “is that more of them didn’t die. The tragedy is that [the shooter] didn’t finish the job.”
I’ll let you all swallow the vomit I pray is now creeping up the back of your mouths.
The problem is that his sermon wasn’t just impassioned. It wasn’t just red meat for a particular nasty tribe. It wasn’t just ugly and hate-filled and merciless in its stunning lack of empathy. The problem with his sermon, for you and for me, is that it was biblical.
It was biblical. It was biblical. It was biblical.
To name two but not the only two biblical texts.
In the wake of the violence in Nice this week, when many are rushing to condemn Islam and the Quran, perhaps it’s important that we acknowledge that we’ve got texts in our own scripture that endorse, proscribe, and justify violence and terror. Plenty of such texts.
While “Reverend” Jimenez made the front page of the Washington Post, we all have that family member, that coworker, that neighbor who shares a perspective that’s substantively no different than that pastor in California.
And, chances are, that family member, that coworker, that neighbor believes the bible is on their side.
So what do we do with them? Those texts?
YouTube removed the video of that California pastor’s sermon so I haven’t watched it, but he could have easily turned to page whatever of his King James Bible (I’m sure it was King James) and he could have easily concluded his preaching by saying:
‘The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.’
But, that’s the problem isn’t it? It doesn’t settle anything because the Bible says lots of things. Lots of contradictory things.
And that can lead you to believe lots of things. Lots of contradictory things.
So that doesn’t settle it. It doesn’t settle anything.
Just take John 8 as Exhibit A. In John 8 the Pharisees haul an adulteress up the Mt of Olives and throw her at Jesus’ feet.
The Pharisees remind the rabbi how the Bible clearly commands that they stone this woman to death for her sin.
And certainly any rabbi, who can quote scripture chapter and verse like Jesus, knows they’re correct.
Leviticus 20 commands it.
Deuteronomy 22 commands it.
Numbers 5 commands it too.
Leviticus 20, Deuteronomy 22, Numbers 5- these aren’t just random, man-made laws. They’re commands, given to Moses on Mt Sinai by God.
It’s easy to forget that after God gives Moses the 10 Commandments, the ones we like and want to nail on walls everywhere, God kept on talking, face-to-face, with Moses. Giving Moses 623 additional commandments. Including those ones in Leviticus 20, Deuteronomy 22 and Numbers 5.
The Bible says it.
A rabbi should believe it.
So they ask Jesus to settle it.
And Jesus responds with the parry ‘whoever is without sin cast the first stone’ and, seeing no one left to condemn her but himself Jesus tells her ‘I do not condemn you. Go. And sin no more.’
Jesus chooses mercy not sacrifice.
In this instance where the Bible is clear and unambiguous, in this instance where the crime and the commanded punishment are spelled out unequivocally in black-and-white- in this instance, Jesus chooses grace and mercy.
And by choosing grace and mercy, in this instance Jesus chooses to violate the explicit command of God.
The Bible says it. They all believe it.
But in this instance belief in the Bible does not settle it for Jesus.
I wonder though- is this just an instance?
Would Jesus say stone her next time? Sure, he tells the woman to go and no longer sin.
But what if she did? What if the Pharisees caught this woman again in adultery a few months later and again brought her to Jesus, how do you think Jesus would respond the second time? Or, say, the fifth time?
Do you think Jesus would say to the Pharisees ‘You’re right guys. The bible’s black and white on this. Since I’m without sin, I’ll throw the first stone?’
Doesn’t feel like it jives with the Jesus story does it?
Of course, the woman at Jesus’ feet on the Mt of Olives- she’s just one example.
Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus trespasses upon the clear, black-and-white, face-to-face commandments of God.
God commanded Moses to stone Sabbath-breakers. And Jesus heals so many people on the Sabbath it’s like he refuses to do anything but.
God promised to Moses that he would visit the sins of the parents upon their children to the 4th generation. And Jesus says to a man born blind that God would never punish him for his parents’ sin.
God commanded Moses to exact vengeance upon enemies, to take an eye for an eye taken. And Jesus refuses to take up the sword, giving up his life rather than take one.
And then when you get to the end of the Jesus story, it’s those most committed to the Bible who conspire to kill Jesus. The Bible tells them to.
In Leviticus 24 and Deuteronomy 13.
God told Moses, face-to-face, to do that very thing to blasphemers and sabbath-breakers and false prophets.
The Bible said it. They believed it. So that settled it.
Saying ‘The Bible said it’ doesn’t settle anything because, let’s be frank- the Passion story makes clear- the Bible can lead you to carry a cross or to build one.
Of course, that’s only a problem if you confuse the Bible for the full revelation of God. It’s only unsettling if you think the Bible is the capital -W- Word of God.
Now, I know when we read scripture in worship we’ll say ‘This is the word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.’ And you hear all the time that the Bible is infallible or inerrant or inspired by the Spirit.
The claims we so often make about the Bible, the Bible makes about Jesus.
Now that couldn’t be more important so let me repeat it:
The claims we so often make of the Bible, the Bible makes of Jesus.
That’s how you heard Paul proclaim Jesus today in Colossians 1:
Jesus is the image of the invisible God.
Jesus is the one in whom all things hold together.
Jesus is the one in whom the fullness of God dwells.
Jesus is the one through whom the totality of who God is is revealed. What Paul proclaims about Jesus in Colossians 1 is what John proclaims in chapter 1 of his Gospel. John make this audacious claim:
‘Scripture was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.’
And then John doubles-down on that claim in his first letter:
‘No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other (as Christ loved) then God is seen in us.’
With those verses, Paul and John deliberately up-end the entire way we read the Bible because, according to the Bible, lots of people have seen God.
A former Pharisee like Paul would know that Adam and Eve and Enoch walked with God. A bible-believing Pharisee like Paul would know that Abraham and Sarah ate with God by the oaks of Mamre and that Jacob freaking wrestled God by the riverside. A rabbi like Paul would know that Moses saw God on top of Sinai where he received from God the 633 commandments that comprised Jesus’ Bible. And Paul would know that Moses wasn’t alone up there either. Scripture says 70 Elders of Israel ate with Moses and God on top Sinai.
So they saw God too. As did the prophet Isaiah in the year King Uzziah died. So did Daniel and Ezekiel. According to the Bible lots of people, patriarchs and prophets, saw God so what could John possibly mean by asserting that no one has ever seen God? What could Paul mean when he proclaims that Jesus, only in Jesus, is God made visible, that only in Jesus does the fullness of God dwell?
This couldn’t be more fundamental. They mean that Jesus, not the Bible, is the full revelation of God.
Paul means that the Logos, the capital -W- Word of God became flesh; the Logos did not become a book.
He means the Bible is not perfect, Jesus is. The Bible is not the redemptive mediator between God and humanity, Jesus is.
The Bible is not infallible or inerrant but what it can do is reliably point us to Jesus Christ.
The claims we so often make about the Bible the Bible makes about Jesus.
Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible. Jesus is what God has to say to us. Jesus is the fullness of God made visible.
Compared to Jesus, you might as well say ‘No one has ever seen God.’ Because all those patriarchs and prophets who saw God, they saw God only partially. Only imperfectly. At most incompletely.
Only Jesus has made the Father known. Only in Jesus does the fullness of God dwell. Only Jesus is the image of invisible God.
And that means, as Brian Zahnd likes to say: “God is like Jesus.”
And more importantly, it means “God has always been like Jesus. It means there has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.”
It means that we have not always known what God is like— Moses, Abraham, the prophets…they caught only glimpses.
We didn’t see God fully. But now, in Christ, we have.”
And that means if there’s one calibrating principle of Christian belief, one grammatical rule for Christian speech, one foundational posture we present to others, it’s this from Tripp Fuller:
“God is at least as nice as Jesus.”
I know that sounds like the bare minimum but, given the world we live in today and the preachers who make the front pages of the Post and the Christians who comment on CNN and social media, I’ll take it.
God is at least as nice as Jesus. Because Jesus, not the Bible, is the fullness of God revealed.
When it comes the character of a congregation, I think there is no more important distinction to draw than that one.
Because, let’s be honest, it would be much easier and would require much less of us to be a community based on the Bible, a community devoted to the Bible, a community that believes in the Bible and believes it to be the full revelation of God.
A community that makes the Bible an end in itself can find within the Bible justification for all sorts of attitudes and actions that came naturally to sinners like us.
A community can be based on the Bible and be angry and judgmental and holier than thou.
A community can be based on the Bible and be hateful and homophobic; a community can be based on the Bible and be sexist and self-righteous. It can be a community that condemns sinners and cast stones and convinces itself that God blesses their violence.
A community that treats the Bible as the capital -W- Word of God, the fullness revelation of God, can find within the Bible justification to believe in all sorts of contradictory, callous and un-Christlike ways.
But a community based on Jesus Christ, a community devoted to Jesus Christ, a community that believes Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, that believes Christ to be the fullness of God, the full revelation of God- that community has no choice, no excuse, no leeway.
It has to be a community characterized by love. Humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, enemy-forgiving, sacrificial, merciful, gracious love.
The kind of love defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.
The Bible says that Jesus- NOT THE BIBLE- is the Word of God, the fullness of God, the image of the otherwise invisible God.
And that’s our answer to fraudulent Christians like that pastor on the front page of the Washington Post.
Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what the Bible says about this or that because what some claim about the Bible, the Bible claims about Jesus.
Jesus Christ is the Word God speaks to us.
So we cannot speak anything of God that we cannot imagine Jesus saying.