The Vulnerability of God in Scripture

The illuminated letter P in the 1407 AD Latin Bible on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England. It was hand written in Belgium, by Gerard Brils, for reading aloud in a monastery. The letters following the letter P are ETRUS, making the word PETRUS (Peter). [Wikimedia Commons]

A sermon on Acts 8:26-40…

Multi-disciplinary medical teams tend to provide better overall care to patients than when physicians act in isolation. That makes sense to us. After all, if I’m a patient, I’m going to want a cardiologist looking into my arrhythmia, a surgeon evaluation the incision from my recent appendectomy, and a physical therapist working to attenuate the weakness that comes from time spent in a hospital bed. Each person brings a certain expertise to the team, and I want this diversity on my medical team if I am the patient.

But what about social diversity? Diversity not based on expertise but on gender and race and age and sexual orientation? Such diversity can, at times, take us out of our comfort zones. So, what are the benefits that this kind of diversity brings to a corporation, to an academic department, to our society? In 2014, Scientific American published an article that explored just this issue; the article cited several studies that claim that social diversity (even in the absence of diversity of expertise) can improve problem-solving skills, productivity, and innovation.

Large businesses that prioritize innovation have greater financial gains when there is female representation on leadership teams, banks that emphasize innovation perform better financially when there is racial diversity within the management, and scientific papers written by a more diverse research team receive a greater number of citations and have a greater impact on a field than do those by teams whose members are ethnically homogeneous. And one fascinating experiment which sought to examine the effect of racial diversity on decision-making small groups found that when participating in a murder-mystery exercise, racially diverse groups were more successful at determining who committed the crime than non-diverse groups. It turns out that when we interact with people who are ethnically similar to us, we tend to think that they have the same information we do, and so we are less likely to share with one another all the information we have. The bottom line: social diversity makes us more creative, diligent, thoughtful, and productive. We need one another in order to figure things out.[1]

We see this in today’s reading from Acts. Just before this passage Phillip has been in Samaria, proclaiming the gospel, casting out demons, and curing those who are paralyzed or lame. But then an angel appears and tells Phillip to go south, to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. He finds there an Ethiopian eunuch seated in a chariot and reading the book of Isaiah. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Phillip runs over to the eunuch, hears that he is reading Isaiah, and asks “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” The eunuch is reading one of the servant songs from Isaiah, one of the passages that the Church has come to see as referring to Christ: “Like a sheep he was led to slaughter…” (Isaiah 53:7). When Phillip proclaims the good news about Jesus and how it relates to this verse from Isaiah, the eunuch says “Look, he is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Phillip baptizes the Ethiopian just before the Holy Spirit snatches Phillip away.

This passage gives us an opportunity to explore how it is that we approach the interpretation of scripture. It may seem from this passage that Phillip just straightforwardly explains the verses from Isaiah to the eunuch and, voilà, he is instantly enlightened. But, let’s be honest, that’s not typically how an interaction with scripture plays out. Yes, reformed theologians used to say that scripture possesses clarity; however, what they meant by this was that if scripture were studied diligently and honestly, then such study would ultimately “bear good fruit.”[2] It doesn’t mean that scripture should or can, in all cases, be understood easily and literally.

Literal interpretation is only one way that scripture can be understood. Scripture can also be interpreted spiritually – something that has been going on in the Church from the very beginning. Since the spiritual sense of scripture is itself divided into three categories, there are four ways of understanding or approaching scripture in our tradition. We call these the fourfold senses of scripture.

  • Literal sense – What did the passage mean in its original context? What do the words say, to what event do they refer, and how were the understood by those who originally heard them?
  • Allegorical sense – How does the passage tell us something about Christ and the Church? Sometimes the passage that is seen as allegorical is from the Old Testament (such as manna being an allegory for the Eucharist, or Christ being seen as the new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks), or it may be a New Testament passage that is understood allegorically (such as the story of the Good Samaritan, in which St. Augustine saw the man who was robbed and beat up as the whole human race and the Good Samaritan as our Lord Jesus Christ).
  • Moral sense – What does this passage tell me about how I am to live? How do I apply it to my own life or to the life or my community? If the shepherd sees one sheep as being so valuable that he leaves the other ninety-nine and goes searching for that one, then how am I to treat the person standing right in front of me? Is it OK to rush past them without even noticing them?
  • Eschatological or anagogical sense – Eschatology is about the end times. How does this passage relate to the kingdom of heaven, to that time and place when Christ will be all in all? We think here of the wedding banquet of which Jesus speaks in the gospels, of God one day making a feast for all nations where there will be no more death, or pain (something we read about in Isaiah), of the new Jerusalem with trees that contain leaves for the healing of the nations.

Scripture comes to us with an abundance of meaning, more than any one of us alone could ever uncover. That’s why we need one another to discern how scripture is speaking to us in a particular place and time. As Peter says in his second letter, “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21). The Holy Spirit enters into both the writing and the interpretation of scripture; and according to Jesus, we know his spirit is with us whenever two or more are gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20). That promise is made to us as a community.

Does this mean that interpreting scripture together, in the Church, protects us from interpreting it wrongly? No. That is a risk, a vulnerability that God accepts in revealing Godself to us in scripture. Christopher Bryan puts this beautifully when he writes:

What does it mean when we say that God speaks to us through Holy Scripture? It means that God has accepted the risk of being revealed to us through words, through texts, through literary genres, through the weaknesses and fallibilities of human authors, the errors of scribes and translators, and all the flaws, fallacies, and fantasies of human speaking and human hearing, It means the vulnerability of God who here and now, in the pages of a book I can hold in my hands, as in the blessed sacrament, as in Mary’s arms in Bethlehem, as before the Sanhedrin and on Calvary, does not think Godhead a thing to be exploited, but humbles himself, being obedient in all things, even to death on a cross (compare Philippians 2:5-11). …

Nevertheless – and how important that biblical ‘nevertheless’ always is! – nevertheless, this same Bible also tells us that God raised Jesus from the dead, and through our baptism promises to raise us, if we will have it so. And that means that the same God will not allow even stupidity, overconfidence, and disobedience as great as ours to have the last word, unless we insist on it.[3]

Diving into scripture, with its richness of meaning and the possibility that we will get it wrong, can be a daunting task, but it is so worth our time and our work, as well as the uncertainty of some of our answers. Why? Because scripture is less a book of information than it is an encounter with God; it is a relationship that, like any relationship, requires nurturing and tending; it is a relationship that transforms us, just as it did the eunuch on the wilderness road.

We come to this place each Sunday for just such an encounter. We come to encounter Christ in the body of Christ, this group of imperfect people trying to follow in Jesus’ footsteps the best that we can. We come to encounter Christ in scripture, with all its contradictions and difficult passages and what we consider outdated worldviews. And we come to encounter Christ in the bread and wine, sometimes stale and sometimes bitter. We come trusting in the God who always meets us where we are, who stoops to be revealed to us in the frailty and imperfection of the world, in the frailty and imperfection of the text, and in our own frailty and imperfection.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Katherine W. Phillips, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Scientific American, October 1, 2014 (reposted 1/31/17), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/.

[2] Christopher Bryan, And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today (New York: Cowley, 2002) 7.

[3] Bryan 48-49.