Part 3 of our series based on Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible. Today we discuss some of the changes we’ve made in how we see the Bible and discuss how it is not the Bible that has changed but our understanding of it. We need to be constantly aware that it is us and not God who is changing as we come to know God in deeper and different ways.
Lobster nachos is my new rave.
Until recently, I had never even heard of such a thing. But as Emma and I were making our way toward California Screamin’ at Disney California Adventure, I saw this huge line outside Ariel’s Grotto. But it wasn’t for Ariel’s Grotto. The line was for this place I’d never heard of called Cove Bar, but it was so long it extended all the way over to this other place. I wondered what was going on. Some new attraction? Some new character meet and greet? Nope, just a fancy bar. But Disney has plenty of other places to quench your thirst, so what made this place so special? I went up to one of the cast members and asked and she said, “Well, we’re famous for lobster nachos.” Lobster nachos! I had to try this thing. The next time we went to the park, Emma and I scooted our way over to this place and plopped ourselves down to a helping of lobster nachos. Yum. It was this pile of “fresh house-made tortilla chips with black beans, pico de gallo, chipotle crema, and [their] signature aged cheddar and Oaxaca cheese sauce” piled on top with of course – lobster. It was a tasty indulgence. But if you take the Bible literally, it was also a sin – one that would make me “unclean.” Some might even say I was an abomination! Would you?
When Eve was in elementary school, they were doing a unit on slavery.
It was during Black History Month, and she came home and said to me, “You know, dad, if we were living a long time ago, you would have to do whatever I said.” I guess she assumed I would be a slave because I had dark skin. It’s funny what the mind of an 8-year old will come up with. Still it does make us think that like our ideas about shellfish, our ideas about slavery have changed a lot over time. And even though for many of us it feels like we’ve lived with racial equality for most of our lives we still have to remember that it’s really only been about 50 years since that was legally true. That means for more than 1900 years, nearly 2 millennia, after the birth of Christ, we still thought people were inferior based solely on the color of their skin. Some people still think that today, but most of us believe that kind of thinking is morally wrong. So what does the Bible have to say? Let’s turn to a passage and see. If you would please turn to the book of Exodus 21: 20-21. Exodus 21:20-21. You might find it strange, but the Bible is pretty silent on the morality of slavery. In fact, some passages like the one we are going to read today have provisions for it, and because of that, the Bible was often used to justify the practice of it. People figured that since the Bible talked about slavery, God must condone it and even twisted certain passages to make it seem right. But we commonly accept that in our 21st century world slavery in every form is flat out wrong.
20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.
Does anyone hear these words and think that God is justifying slavery?
As we understand God today, would we believe that God thinks slaves are property or people? Do we believe God thinks it’s really okay for people to beat their slaves so long as they recover in a couple of days? Few of us would nod our heads to these questions, so how can we explain our understanding now and our misunderstanding then? Did the Bible suddenly change? Did the words change magically? Or did our understanding of God and these passages change? It’s obvious to us today that our understanding of the Bible has changed. Just as it has changed about eating shellfish, we understand that these words were written in a different time and for a different culture than our own and as we talked about last week context matters. Context matters.
Some people will argue that God did away with all of these Old Testament regulations.
They don’t count so we can just ignore what the Old Testament says. What they are usually referring to is Peter’s story in the book of Acts where God comes to Peter in a dream and tells him not to judge anything unclean that God has made clean. But while that might refer to some of the eating laws of the Old Testament, it doesn’t refer to everything we read there. Plus, slavery wasn’t just something referenced in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament, too. And there are other statements in the New Testament that don’t work for us either. Women in worship needing to be quiet. Women in worship not taking leadership roles. Women in worship wearing hats. Seriously, do we even care about that last one any more? There might be a few congregations out there that haven’t got the memo (and in the Catholic Church it really was a memo), but even most of the more conservative congregations don’t think twice about this one. Why is that?
In Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible he describes three buckets.
He wrote that all of Scripture can be classified into three buckets. The vast majority of Scripture fits into the first bucket – the timeless will of God for human beings. The second bucket of Scripture reflects God’s will in a particular time but not for all time. And the third bucket contains passages that “reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will.” Things like “Love thy neighbor” are obviously 1st bucket Scripture. When we study the life and words of Jesus, passages in this category are consistent with what Jesus taught and how he lived. Things like eating shellfish are 2nd bucket Scripture. They may have served a purpose at the time they were written, but they no longer apply today. And then there are things like slavery and wearing hats that are 3rd bucket Scripture. When we examine the life of Christ and how he called on us to live our lives, we realize that these passages did not reflect God’s will. So the puzzle is trying to figure out which bucket something belongs in and that’s where we come into conflict.
Take something like homosexuality for example.
One of the biggest arguments in the church right now is over the topic of homosexuality. Should we allow gay marriage? Should we accept people who are gay as pastors and leaders? This year at our General Conference for the church where United Methodists from all over the globe will gather together, this topic more than any other is anticipated to be the most talked about and debated one of them all. The debate comes down to which bucket does this belong in? Which bucket does this belong in? Because if this isn’t a 1st bucket issue, then the church is not just running against society, but against God himself. Those that are opposed to this issue believe God’s word on the subject puts it squarely in the 1st bucket – the timeless will of God. Those that hope to fully include our brothers and sisters who are gay believe it belongs in either the 2nd or 3rd bucket, mostly the 3rd. What do you believe?
Before you come to a conclusion on that, take these points into consideration.
Would God really want us to put to death people who lived a gay lifestyle? I can’t imagine that the God we believe in ever wants us to take other people’s lives into our own hands. When the apostles were trying to defend Jesus from being taken to a sure death sentence, Jesus had them put down their weapons and even healed an injured servant who had come to take him. He said in Matthew 26:52, “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Yet in Leviitcus 20:13 we read, “‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” Even those who believe sleeping with someone of the same gender is wrong wouldn’t feel justified in taking their life, just as we don’t take the lives of adulterers or children who curse their parents even though both of those sins also command death (Leviticus 20:9-10). So if we are already modifying God’s word to fit our sensibilities about who God is, then is it hard to believe that maybe these passages don’t apply to us today? Hamilton offers arguments from many different positions on this topic that help us to see how easily these commands are at the very least bucket 2 statements if not outright bucket 3, and if that’s the case is there room for grace in our church for people who are already often condemned by the world around them? Will the church be the last to realize that God loves all of his children?
Next time I go to Disney California Adventure you bet I’ll get some lobster nachos.
They were as good as advertised. And I don’t think even the most conservative Christians around would think I was a sinner for eating them (unless it was because I was being gluttonous). So I will sit there, secure in the knowledge that I am not an abomination just because it has shellfish. I won’t have to worry about being ritually cleansed before stepping into the pulpit on a Sunday. And my relationship with God will be no different than if I ate a pork belly bao taco or a tenderloin hamburger. As I’m sitting there, I won’t worry that the color of my skin makes me less in the eyes of God or less worthy of his love because I know that those old beliefs never reflected God’s will. And I’m confident that if one day my daughter wants to follow in my footsteps and teach the Word of God, God will have been the one to call her to the ministry. And yet, as I’m chomping on my nachos, I am aware that none of these things would have been considered acceptable at one time. I know that the Bible hasn’t changed. But our understanding of God has. And I’m hoping that as we tackle these tough issues, we truly discern and take the time to reflect on whether our opinions are the timeless Word of God or simply our own interpretation of it. Because if it’s just our interpretation, we need to get out of the way and let God’s will be done. I encourage you to consider your own positions on the topics that face our church, our denomination, and God’s work in the world. I encourage you to study the Bible and discern for yourself if your thoughts and opinions line up with the life and work of Jesus. And I encourage you to pray daily for clarity and kindness of heart in all things as we move forward together. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 From the menu description for Lobster Nachos at Cove Bar
 Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible, pp. 273-274.
 Many of the arguments put forth are adapted from Hamilton’s book. Read his chapter on Homosexuality and the Bible in full for a more complete understanding