Sermon Text: Welcome to the Argument
For Show and Tell today, I brought a book. When I was in high school, I went to my friend’s church youth group. It wasn’t my church, but I liked the youth group. The pastor of that church gave me this New Testament.
He didn’t autograph it or anything. But he should have written something in it. He should have written inside the front cover, “Welcome to the argument.”
The New Testament, and in fact the whole Bible, is full of argument. People arguing with God. God arguing with people. Jesus arguing with religious leaders. The apostle Paul arguing with....everybody.
Today’s Gospel reading is from the famous Sermon on the Mount. Maybe I should have introduced it like this: “The Holy Argument of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew.” That’s because we hear Jesus arguing with the Bible itself. He quotes from the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament), and then he changes it.
He quotes the Bible’s law against murder, and then says that anger is just as bad. He quotes the Bible’s commandment against adultery, and says that lust in your heart is just as bad. He quotes the Old Testament permission for divorce, and then he says it’s wrong.
Actually, to be clear, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus allows for divorce only in the case of adultery. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus does not allow divorce for any reason at all.
Then the apostle Paul comes along and argues with Jesus. Paul is actually much more tolerant of divorce than Jesus. We tend to think of Paul taking the gentle religion of Jesus and making it all harsh. But more often Paul softens the teachings of Jesus, notably in Paul’s more permissive attitude toward divorce.
And after Jesus and Paul, the church argued with both of them. In our own time, many church traditions have become much more tolerant and understanding about divorce. And that strikes me as more generous and realistic. I think excommunicating people for divorce is flat-out wrong.
Now, the church youth group where the pastor gave me this copy of the New Testament was what should be called an “evangelical” or “fundamentalist” youth group. Churches like that refer to the Bible as “the inerrant Word of God.” They believe the Bible is without error in all that it affirms.
(Oddly, the divorce rate in churches like that is slightly higher than in the general population, which seems weird.)
Anyway, I was part of those churches that tell their members that every word of the Bible is true.
But the trouble is, I’m a reader. And I read the thing cover to cover. And the Bible turns out to contradict itself in many ways, both large and small.
It turns out that the Bible is not really one book, but a library of 66 books. And like in any library, the books have many different voices. Some of the books of the Bible have a passionate God, while others have a distant, emotionless God. Some books picture God as loving and caring, and others picture God as vengeful and angry. Different books in the Bible offer different answers to questions of meaning and behavior.
The Bible is fascinating, but it is not monochromatic. Welcome to the argument.
So what do we do with it, if we are followers of Jesus, members of the church, and Christians? Well, I think we engage with the argument. Welcome to the argument. Welcome to a church where you don’t have to check your brains at the door. Welcome to a faith community that invites you to think and evaluate. We honor Scripture here, and tradition, and we also honor reason. We honor conscience.
When I was a little kid in church, my catechism teachers told me that I have a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other. They both whisper to me, and try to get me to do stuff. My teachers told me I needed to follow the angel. Well, as I grew up I realized that was a fairy tale, or at least not true literally.
But it’s not a bad symbol. I do feel impulses in both good and bad directions, and I need to think and wrestle with myself and act ethically. Welcome to the argument.
Now, the Gospel of Matthew is the first book in my New Testament here. But it was not the first New Testament document to be written. The books of the New Testament are not arranged in chronological order. They are thematically organized — first come the stories of Jesus, then the early church, and then the letters to the earliest churches, and finally the book about the end of the world.
However, the Gospels were written after most of the epistles, or letters, had been written. The Gospels were written after the year 60. Paul the apostle wrote his letters in the 40s. And the people who study these things are almost unanimous in saying that the oldest of Paul’s letters is the first letter to the Thessalonians. Most scholars believe that first Thessalonians was also the first New Testament document to be written.
Anyway, in this oldest of New Testament writings, you can find some wisdom for dealing with all the different voices in the Bible. How do we choose which biblical voices to honor? How do we evaluate the arguments between different Bible books How do we decide? Well, the apostle Paul wrote to his friends in Thessalonica, and right near the end of his letter, he wrote this: “Test everything. Hold on to the good.”
There are no easy answers. God gave you a brain and a heart. God expects you to use them. So.....welcome to the argument.