This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.
The text is I Thessalonians 2:9-13.
This coming December, my wife Sarah and I will celebrate five wonderful years of marriage. Five years of growing in commitment and trust for each other. Five years of facing life’s challenges together. Five years of blessing, closeness, and love. Incidentally, it also happens to be our seventh wedding anniversary. I’ll let you do the math.
Why the discrepancy? Well, I’ll tell you. A couple of years into our marriage, I learned the secret to wedded bliss and it’s three little words. These are the three little words that everyone longs to hear. The depth of their meaning transcends history, culture, and religion. The power of these words has sustained people through the very darkest hours of life. They should be spoken as often as possible. Let them be the first words out of your mouth when you get up in the morning and the last words before you turn out the lamp at night. Say them when you leave the house and when you get home. Hold each others’ hands, gaze into each others’ eyes, and mean them when you say them. These are the three most powerful words in the English language. What do you think they are?
“I love you”? No.
It’s “You’re right, dear.”
(Pause for laughter)
I’m only joking, really. All of my nearly seven years with my wife have been fantastic. And Sarah is a wonderfully generous person, with an open mind and an open heart, who does NOT need to be right all of the time. However, most of us, at some point in our lives, have probably known someone who DOES need to be right (or at least feel like they’re in the right) all of the time. These folks can be very difficult to live with or work with.
Any personal relationship involves some kind of give and take. It also involves things like change, risk, and trust. None of that can happen when one (or both) of the people in the relationship is bent on being (or feeling) absolutely right all of the time. Nobody is that perfect.
Most of us already understand this truth when it comes to our interpersonal relationships. We know how to say “I’m sorry” when we mess things up. We know how to forgive other people when they mess things up. We don’t expect ourselves or other people to be perfect (or right) all of the time. We know this. And because we know this, we’re able to stay committed to each other in healthy relationships and grow together into the kind of people we’re meant to be.
Now, it’s pretty common for people to talk about their spiritual lives as a relationship. They talk about their “personal relationship with God”. I know of several Christians who are keen to claim that Christianity itself is “a relationship, not a religion”. But the funny thing is that, in this relationship, one party (God) is expected to be absolutely perfect all of the time while the other party (the person) is expected to simply acknowledge and appreciate the perfection of the first.
Now the expectation of perfection in this relationship, while based in God, is not usually restricted to God alone. Absolute perfection usually gets projected onto something or someone else that somehow reveals God to people. This can be some supposedly perfect person (like the Pope), a supposedly perfect institution (like the church), or a supposedly perfect book (like the Bible).
I think people tend to make these kinds of projections because they desperately long for a deep, personal relationship with God, the source of all goodness and love. However, God is also mysterious and intangible. This mysteriousness can cause some people a lot of anxiety, so they direct their devotion toward the Pope, the church, or the Bible as a stand-in for God. It’s more comforting to have a relationship with something you can see, touch, and understand. The problem is that projecting God onto someone or something that is not God is the very definition of idolatry. It would be no different if they built a statue of a golden calf and bowed down to it.
I think this is exactly what happened about a hundred years ago in the Presbyterian Church when a group of scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary felt their faith being threatened by developments in modern science and philosophy that called into question certain traditional Christian beliefs. They took it upon themselves to defend what they considered to be the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Referring to themselves as “Fundamentalists”, they developed the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The Bible, according to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, was to be read and interpreted as a spiritually, theologically, morally, historically, and scientifically accurate book. Every single word of the Bible was absolutely true and came directly from the mouth of God. Questioning a single word in the text of the Bible was tantamount to rejecting the perfect authority of God. The absolute goodness and perfection of God was projected onto the text of the Bible. Thus, according to the Fundamentalists, we imperfect people can relate to the perfect God through this perfect book. But, as we’ve already noticed, worshiping the Bible in place of God is idolatry. Also, it’s really hard to have an honest, personal relationship with someone who has to be absolutely right all of the time.
In case you couldn’t tell already, this is a big pet peeve of mine. It really irks me. So, I have to admit that I really struggled with I Thessalonians 2:13 in preparation for this week’s sermon. It reads, “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”
At first glance, it seems like the Apostle Paul is setting himself up as an inerrant or infallible source of revelation, saying that his words are God’s word. So I read over it, I thought about it, I struggled with it, and eventually I just sat with it.
What struck me after sitting with it for a while is that Paul hardly seems to be the type to set himself up as a perfect and absolute authority. Paul is referred to elsewhere in the New Testament as the “chief of sinners”. He calls himself, “least of the apostles”. This strikes me as the voice of a humble person who knows he has been saved by grace. If Paul is drawing any kind of connection between his voice and God’s, I doubt he is doing so in the spirit of an indisputable expert.
What struck me next is the language around this verse in I Thessalonians 2. In this section, Paul is simply recounting the story of his ministry with the Thessalonians. Paul does a lot of storytelling. The story of his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus is told no less than three times in the book of Acts. Paul is also a first-rate scholar who knows the stories of his Jewish heritage. When Paul talks about delivering the “word of God” to the Thessalonian Christians in verse 13, I bet there was a lot of storytelling involved. I bet he told them about his first encounter with Jesus in a vision (and how he walked around blind as a bat for days afterward). I bet he told them about those early Christians, who were suspicious of him at first but eventually welcomed him with open arms. I bet he told them how his newfound faith in Christ and assurance of God’s unconditional love changed his life forever.
If there is a word from God to be heard here, it seems that it must be found between the lines of the story of Paul’s life. Furthermore, this word of God is not only to be heard in the lives of famous heroes like Paul, but, as Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians in verse 13, God’s word is also “at work in you believers.” Paul is adamant in declaring that his story is not unique. The word of God can be heard in their stories as well.
God’s word is not some dead text written on a page or carved into tablets of stone. God’s word is a living word that sings and dances through the lives of all people. Unlike an infallible text, the living word can lead us into an honest, personal relationship with the living God. It can handle questions, doubt, and differing interpretations. It allows our faith the freedom to trust, change, and grow into new forms of believing. If we listen for it, we can hear God’s living word in the wind that blows through the trees and the river that rolls over the rocks. We can hear it echoing between the stars and pulsing between the atoms. Reading between the lines of the poet’s verse and the physicist’s equation we listen for God’s living word.
God’s living word can be heard in your life as well, if you know where to listen for it. This can be tricky because life isn’t always pleasant. I won’t go so far as to say that everything that happens to us in life is God’s will, but I will go so far as to say that there is no person and no situation that is beyond healing and redemption. God’s living word is always present, even in the dark and chaotic times, growing us toward peace and proclaiming, “Let there be light!”
I believe God’s living word is even present in this message. If you’re hearing this today, it’s not by accident. Not that I am claiming to be perfect or infallible. In fact, God’s word might not be speaking to you through me but in spite of me this morning. Listen for whatever is going on in your mind and heart right now. Listen for any thought or feeling of blessed assurance that inspires you to keep exploring the height, depth, length, and breadth of love in this world. That’s the living word of God at work in you!
Finally, last but not least, lest you think I’m leading you to abandon the Bible entirely, we can and should listen for the living word of God in its pages as well. The Bible is a sacred book. For us Christians, it is our sacred book. I believe it is blessed and inspired. It holds an honored and central place in our tradition. It can serve as a helpful guide on the spiritual journey. We would do well to keep reading and studying it as best we can. But it’s not a perfect book. Everything God has to say is not contained within its pages. Jesus himself said in John 16:12, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, [the Spirit] will guide you into all the truth”. Personally, I like the way that comedian Gracie Allen says it, “Never put a period where God puts a comma.” God is still speaking (as our friends in the United Church of Christ like to say). Do we have ears to hear?