Last week we looked at New Testament texts that mention slavery, and some of what we found was pretty disturbing.

We saw that both Jesus and Paul used slavery as a metaphor to describe our relationships.

On the one hand, the metaphor of slavery (and/or servanthood) can describe our relationship to righteousness, to God, to Christ, and to one another. In 1st Corinthians 9:19 the apostle says,“I have made myself a slave of all, that I might win the more.”

On the other hand, the metaphor of slavery can be useful to describe our relationship to sin, death, and the devil, meaning all the powers of evil. Remember, to believe in the devil is to believe that evil is greater than the sum total of its parts (C.S. Lewis), and that the possibilities of evil are not exhausted by purely human evil. (Emil Brunner) In John 8:34 Jesus said, “the one who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Paul, Bob Dylan, and Etta James were right:

“Everybody has got to serve somebody!…
It may be the devil; it may be the LORD; but
Everybody has got to serve somebody.”

Now here is the hard part: Though both Jesus and Paul use the metaphor of slavery to illustrate our various relationships, neither spoke out against the powers that kept slavery in place as part of the world domination system.

We saw that there were at least three reasons for this strange silence.

First, slavery in the New Testament Era was very different from the peculiar institution as it was practiced in America. Slaves in many Roman households were better off than those who were free but poor. The poor often lacked the basics of life; but slaves almost always had food, clothing and shelter. So, too, slaves were often educated in the same vocation or trade as their masters. They served as doctors, scribes, accountants, artisans, artist, musicians, and the like. By the time that Jesus was twenty years old, slaves were entitled to trials like the free, could own property; and, best of all, they could often gain their freedom. Paul recognizes this in 1st Corinthians 7. There he says that if a slave can gain his freedom, he should avail himself of the opportunity.

Second, had Jesus or Paul led or inspired a slave revolt, there is no guarantee that a significant number of people would have been immediately better off than they already were; and, there is certainly a chance, that a significant number of people would have been immediately worse off than they already were. It may be that the Empire would have collapsed, and the New Testament itself teaches that God used the Empire to spread the gospel. As Barth said, “God can make even the devils praise him.”

Third, and this is the most important of all, both Jesus and Paul thought that this present world was passing rapidly away. The day was about to arrive when masters and slaves alike would stand before Judgment Seat of Christ to receive a reward for the things done in the body whether good or bad.

Some people may be troubled that Jesus was uncertain of the time that God’s kingdom would come in its fullness; but Jesus himself said it was so. In Mark 13:32 he says, “Of that day and hour, no man knows, not the angels in the heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” I can promise you all one thing: The New Testament teaches that no one will have to wait more than a lifetime before we see the triumph of God.

Now today we are going to look at the single most important text in the New Testament with regard to slavery: St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. The content of this letter, does not vary greatly from the content of Paul’s other letters; but the Spirit of it something else again. The Spirit of the Letter to Philemon is in perfect harmony with Galatians 3:28 in which Paul says:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free,
there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The storyline in Philemon goes like this. St. Paul writes to his friend, and co-worker Philemon on behalf of Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. There are four major characters in this drama.

First, there is Paul. He is “an ambassador in chains,” for the Letter to Philemon is one of Paul’s so-called Prison Epistles. Paul is the key figure in the whole drama. He knows Philemon, and Philemon’s family, and household, and the church which meets in Philemon’s house. Paul calls Philemon his brother, and his fellow worker; but Paul obviously regards himself as Philemon’s senior partner in the gospel.

Second, there is Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave. Having read the epistle several times over it is easy to surmise that Onesimus first heard Paul preach the gospel to the church that gathered for worship in the house of his master. Onesimus the slave must have been totally captivated by the gospel which promised freedom from sin, death, and the devil. Certainly he liked the idea of being a freeman in Christ. Yet we must also surmise that Paul must have left the house of Philemon before Onesimus could make a profession of faith. For a time Onesimus may not have known where Paul was, but when he heard that Paul was in prison, he ran from the house of Philemon to Paul’s prison cell to complete his conversion to Christ.

Third, there is Philemon. The epistle everywhere assumes that Philemon, like Onesimus, is one of Paul’s converts, and a devout Christian. Paul praises Philemon for his partnership in the gospel, and for his work with the church which meets in his house, and for his reputation in the church at large. Paul says that stories of the work that Philemon has done have refreshed the hearts of the saints. Paul is intentional in reminding Philemon that he is a public figure, for he wants to make a fourth character part of the unfolding drama.

The fourth character is a composite character. It consist of Paul companions, which he named in the letter as Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. It also includes all the family and household of Philemon, and the church which meets in his house, and by extension, the larger church, and, of course, God himself. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is always present with us. God is always watching!

In speaking to Philemon about Onesimus in front of this large and august audience, Paul is invoking what theologians call a “triadic relationship.” This means that when any two people are in conversation, we are conducting that conversation in the presence of God, and in the presence of all others who are taking note of our exchange. We may think that the issue that we are deciding between ourselves is personal and private. Yet, in reality, it is about as public as anything can be. This is what Jesus was getting at when he said that words we utter in secret will be shouted from the housetops.

The Epistle of Philemon functions like a classic novel. A classic novel tells a story that is rooted in the lives of specific people who live in a specific time and place, yet, there is a sense in which the truth that is communicated in that story is universal.

When Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus he is speaking to a very specific situation; yet that specific situation reveals a universal situation and response. That situation is this: Slavery is a fact of life in this world; however, slavery has nothing to do with life in the kingdom of God. In Christ we are all brothers and sisters; and God shows no favoritism. Of course, because God gives us our freedom, the question of whether or not we will show favoritism when God does not, is still up to us to decide. Paul makes that point with Philemon when he says:

8 I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you- I, Paul, an ambassador and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus, 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Philemon 1:8-11 RSV)

Paul does not tell Philemon that it is God’s will for him to free Onesimus, but he comes as close as possible without saying it when says that the reason Onesimus was parted from Philemon for a while was that:

“…15 (you) might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave
but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but
how much more to you…”

Forever is a longtime! The relationship between slave and master is evolving!
Paul goes on to say that in sending Onesimus back to Philemon he is sending his own heart. He says that if Philemon considers him his partner, he should receive Onesimus as he would receive him. He says that if Onesimus has wronged Philemon at all, or owes him anything, Philemon is to charge the debt to Paul’s own account. Paul says the will make good on the debt, and puts his own hand to the Epistle, just as if he were signing a promissory note. Then, and this is the biggie, Paul reminds Philemon that he has credit in the bank of Philemon, because Philemon owes him his very life. Paul is referring to the roll he played in Philemon’s conversion.

Paul then says that he is confident that Philemon will do even more than he asks. And what is does that mean? Well, it can only mean that Philemon will not only receive Onesimus back without penalty, but will make him a free man, too. And Philemon will set Onesimus free not because Paul has threatened him, but because it is the right thing to do, and Paul knows Philemon wants to do the right thing.

It is easy to see that Paul trying to be very open and generous with Philemon; however the apostle cannot help but end this short letter with a barely veiled threat. Paul tells Philemon to prepare a guest room for him, for he is hoping, to be granted the opportunity to visit with him once more, in his house, where the church meets, for this is the very thing for which the church has been praying.

Now here is a question: What do you think that Philemon did? Judge Bill Wood once told me that in his courtroom the very existence of this letter that Paul wrote to Philemon would be considered evidence that Philemon freed Onesimus. “If he had not,” said Judge Wood, “he would certainly have destroyed the letter.”

Now, as we close this sermon, a third sermon on the subject of slavery looms large. For though we can safely conclude that Philemon undoubtedly did the right thing, we must also take note of the fact that many Christians who lived long after this letter became a part of our New Testament have not done the right thing. In our Western World, many people who thought of themselves as devout Christians continued to own slaves for more than 1800 years. It took a bloody Civil War to free the slaves in America. And it is pretty obvious from almost any edition of the Evening News that, in America, the sins of our fathers, and grandfathers, are still being visited upon the children, and grand-children. Whether we like to admit it, all Americans continue to suffer because some of us came here in chains.

I think Christian managed to escape the meaning of Philemon because we were hung up on the letter of the New Testament, even in those few places when the letter had been shown to fall short of the fullness of Christ. We can find a ready example in 1st Timothy 6:1-2. There we read:

1 Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. 2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.

This text was very popular in Southern pulpits just before the Civil War. Today, it is difficult for some, including this pastor, to imagine that Paul could have written both Philemon and this text from 1st Timothy. That said, it really does not matter who wrote these texts. What matters is that we must decide which of these two texts were written down to appease the powers of the world, perhaps buying our fledging faith a little time to spread its wings and grow stronger—and which of these two texts represents the highest and best word the New Testament speaks about slavery and freedom. I vote for Philemon being God’s highest and best word; because it breathes much more the Spirit of Christ than the text from 1st Timothy. If you think I am bold to say this, I would simply remind you that it is a boldness born of a confidence with which God gifts us all.. In 2nd Corinthians 3:4-6 the apostle writes:

4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.

This text is not aimed just at ordained clergy. It is for us all. The truth is that most of you already weigh text against text, and know which represents the highest and best. I know this is true because I have lived among you for almost three decades. However, the outside world is ignorant of our process of selection. We need a way of communicating it to them. There is no better way, than to insist that Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word Made Flesh, continues to be the standard against which all the texts of scripture must be measured.


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Mark 16, 1st Corinthians 11,14
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

The Moravian Church was the first protestant denomination to educate its girls and women alongside its boys and men. In the Renewed Church of the18th Century, we had women in positions of leadership. Then, over the years, the church allowed society at large to affect our prophetic stance. When I was a boy in the 1950’s and early 1960’s all the pastors in the Moravian Church were men, as were all the elders and trustees in most of the local churches.

In those days, the only denominations that regularly permitted women in rolls of leadership were Quakers and Pentecostals. One of my professors at Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Harold Kuhn, was a Quaker. Dr. Kuhn was his denomination’s representative to the National Council of Churches. In the early 1960’s at one session of the Council, he was asked if he wanted to serve on a committee to study the issue of women in the ministry. He said, “It is not an issue for me. I belong to a small, obscure denomination that has been ordaining women for more than 300 years.”

I think it is interesting that the first denominations to ordain women, like the Quakers and some Pentecostals, had an emphasis on the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in the church. They took seriously the word of Jesus in John 16:13 that he would send the Holy Spirit to lead his disciples into all truth.

Today, Moravians are firmly behind the tradition of women in leadership and ministry. For instance, our board of Elders is made up of the pastor and 11 elders; at present six of the Elders are women. Likewise, our denomination has been ordaining women for decades. The Rev. Christy Clore is an ordained Moravian minister; and we now several women who have been consecrated bishops, including Bishop Blair Couch and Bishop Kay Ward. The past president of the Unity Board is a woman from South Africa, Sister Evangeline Swart; and the president of the Northern Province Provincial Elders Conference is a woman, the Rev. Betsy Miller.

Many of my friends in the fundamentalist churches have asked me how we Moravians can read the same New Testament they do, and permit women in leadership, even ordaining them?

There are at least three answers to that question.

First, as we have said in prior weeks, we recognize that some texts of scripture take precedent over other, primarily because they are more Christlike. For instance,when we read in 1st Corinthians 14:35 that “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church,” we balance it against texts like Galatians 3:28 wherein the apostle writes:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

When we compare those two texts we simply know that the text from Galatians represents the highest and best the apostle had to say, and that the text from 1st Corinthians is inferior to it.

Second, Moravians, like Quakers and Pentecostals believe in the continual activity and leading of the Holy Spirit. Though we acknowledge that some texts of scripture forbid women from speaking in church and having authority over men, we also acknowledge that the Holy Spirit has continued to call women into God’s service. In the Moravian Church, it was as teachers that women initially demonstrated that they first class citizens in the Kingdom of God.

I shall never forget the honesty of a woman who was a member of my mother’s Sunday School Class at Pine Chapel Moravian Church where I grew-up. One day, after church, she told my father that my mother was a better teacher than he was a preacher. This gave rise to my father’s famous, and oft quoted exclamation, “She will never teach in the church again!” The truth is that by her own conviction my mother would only teach other women. She refused to teach men. Another woman in our church, Mrs. B___ E_______, was not so reluctant. B__ was the first woman to teach what was then known as “the Young Adult Class.” I used to attend that class when I was home from college. By that time, most of its members were in their forties and fifties, but I was attracted by B__’s teaching. She held this once young man’s attention in ways that even my father could not. Once Moravians allowed women like B__ to teach men, the future of women in our church was written large and clear: “There is no male or female, but we are all one in Jesus Christ.” Small wonder that we ordain women today!

The third reason Moravians have come to fully accepted women in leadership is our careful study of the texts of scripture itself. A careful study of these texts often sheds new light on them. Remember, our Bible did not drop down from heaven whole. There are 27 books in the New Testament alone, and we possess thousands of manuscripts containing one or more of these books. There is much to learn by comparing these manuscripts.

Sometimes, text criticism provides us with some low hanging fruit, that is easily picked and digested. Take the long ending of the gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). The King James Bible (1611) includes the long ending, where in Jesus asserts that his disciples would speak in tongues, handle serpents, and drink poison without harm. The RSV (1952) still includes the long ending, but it also includes a note that the long ending is missing from the oldest manuscripts, all of which had been discovered since the King James was published. In the original text Mark’s gospel ends with verse 8, and the final word is the Greek preposition “gar,” which is translated by our English word “for.” This word cries out for an additional phrase, and it is not there. “For” is not a word on which to end a book or a gospel. Therefore, many scholars believe the original ending of Mark was lost. I agree. So did scribe who lived long after the Gospel was first published, and added the long ending we have now. (Note 1:) The scribe meant well, and his ending may have served the needs of its day; but, in our day, it has given rise to the churches of the southern highlands that pick-up snakes and drink poison. That kind of religion may be attractive to some, but it is not attractive to me. When I was in Seminary I saw a film that followed the career of a snake handling pastor. He said that those with strong faith need not fear the serpents, and the film showed actual footage of him taking up serpents, caressing and even kissing them. As the film closed, the narrator told us that, this particular pastor ultimately died of snakebite. Evidently, if we are to believe his own words, his faith wore so thin that it became too weak to save him. I left that film knowing that the faith of the snake-handlers was foreign, albeit certainly kin, to my own. We are all followers of Christ! That realization made me pray that the snake handling churches would produce just one good text critic who could then tell them that the long ending of Mark was not a part of the oldest and best manuscripts. Of course, that is not likely to happen, for as one of their number said on another occasion, “The King James Bible was good enough for Jesus and Paul, it is good enough for us.” Of course, this is completely ridiculous. Jesus and Paul lived in the first Christian century, and the King James Bible was not translated into English from the original languages until the 17th Christian century. Even the King James Bible is based on the best text criticism of its day.

Text criticism has provided us with some low hanging fruit. At times it is easy to apply its rules. At other times, we simply have to trust to the internal evidence of a text. That is the case in 1st Corinthians. In chapter 11 of 1st Corinthians St. Paul assumes that women are praying and prophesying in the church at Corinth. He accepts this, with one proviso: He says that women should only pray or prophesy with their heads covered. So far, so good. Women can teach in the church. Then, In chapter 14 of 1st Corinthians, St. seems to contradict what he says in chapter 11.. In chapter 14 he says that it is shameful for a woman to speak in church, and even orders women with questions refrain from asking them until they are home alone with their husbands. Noting this glaring contradiction, many scholars have been quick to point out that chapter 14 reads just as well, and perhaps even better, if we leave out those verses that seem aimed at silencing and subjugating women. (verses 34-37) The same scholars have concluded that these verses, like the long ending of Mark, are not original to the text; but added by a disciple of Paul, or perhaps by a scribe copying his original letter. They argue that the idea that women should keep silent in the church was not Paul’s idea at all.

I am in 100% agreement with this position, and it is vindicated by internal evidence that we have gathered from Paul’s other letters. We know from Romans 16 that Paul named at least one woman, Phoebe, as a deaconess in the church, and another woman, Junia, as an apostle. (Note 1) We know from 1st Corinthians 9:1 that Paul defined an apostle as “one who had seen the risen Lord.” Therefore, it is not Paul and the church, but the risen Christ himself who appoints women to the apostleship, beginning with Mary Magdalene in the Garden, on that first Easter Morning.

There are other texts attributed to Paul that seem to be against women in leadership and ministry. And we must also deal with those. In 1st Timothy 2:11-12 the apostle writes that women are to keep silent and learn in silence, and that he never permits women to have authority over men. Like my professor at Princeton, Dr. Bruce Metzger, I believe that some of the content of 1st and 2nd Timothy must be traced to Paul, but in their final form, these pastoral epistles reflect a later time in the church. They don’t concern themselves with the apostles and prophets of the early church, as much as they concern themselves with the deacons, and elders, and bishops of a later era. They treat the church more like an organization that the organism it was in the beginning.

Some fundamentalists will have fits to think that the writings of Paul were edited by another; but it really not such a big deal. In point of fact, in Romans 16:22 we learn that Paul did not even write the book of Romans. There we read:“I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Of course, Paul is the authority behind the letter to the Romans, and Tertius only served as his amanuensis or secretary. However, it illustrates a point. It is not so big a jump from being Paul’s secretary, to being Paul’s editor. Similar things happen in our own church office all the time. The fact that scripture has both authors and editors is to be expected. It is hardly a threat to the integrity of the Scripture.

Now at this juncture, some of you may be tempted to throw up your hands and say, “How can I ever be competent to judge things like this?” The answer, of course, is that not everyone has to be. The church sets aside scholars to study these things for us; and to communicate what they have learned. Some of us will want to pursue the questions. I have been doing so for forty years. This does not mean that we have to put our discipleship on hold. The important thing for each of us is that we remember that every text of scripture, as every decision in life, must eventually measure up to the person of Jesus Christ, for he is the Word of God which is living, and active, and it is with Him that we have to do. (Hebrews 4:12)

Consider once more the example of women in the church. Think about how important women have been in the whole long history of the church, reaching to the present day and beyond. I would not want to be a part of a church that denied itself the talents of more than 50 percent of its membership, yet some people are content to be. Not long ago Clyde and I met with a woman who was about to join New Philadelphia for lunche. She was a professional, not a Bible scholar, but she well understood the principals that we have been talking about. Before coming here, she was about to join a large successful church, and was attending a course of instruction that would lead to membership. As the final session drew to a close, she noted a great omission, and asked, “What does this church have to say about women in leadership?” The person leading the class told her that, at present, there were no women in leadership in the church. “But,” he said, “if the right woman came along, it might be possible.” Ouch! Aren’t you glad that Moravians believe that any woman who is obedient a disciple of Jesus Christ, and obedient to his Spirit is is the right woman, as many of you have proven.


Note 1: There is yet another “Shorter Ending,” occurring in some manuscripts after verse 8. There are variations, but it may be summed up as follows: “But they (the women) reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself (appeared to them and) sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

Note 2: Some translations of Romans 16, including the KJV and the RSV read “Junias,” indicating a man. We now know this to be wrong. The NRSV reads “Junia.” In translating the NRSV scholars took into account that though there are lots of Junia’s in literature and correspondence contemporary to Paul’s letter, there is not one Junias. Juntas was never a masculine name. Paul was talking about a woman apostle; not a man.

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(3rd in The Hard Texts of Scripture Series)

While teaching at the Virginia Military Institute, Stonewall Jackson nicknamed his four canons, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” Jackson, an elder in the Presbyterian church, was making a play on words. There were many gospels written, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the four canonical gospels, that were approved by the ancient church for inclusion in our New Testament.

The Canon of the Protestant Old Testament consists of 39 books. 5 books of the Law, 12 Historical Books, 5 Books of Wisdom, and 17 books associated with the Major and Minor Prophets.

The Canon of the New Testament consists of 27 books. Four gospels, a history of the early church we call “the Acts of the Apostles,” 21 epistles, or letters, and one book, the Revelation of St. John the Divine which is both a letter and an apocalypse, or an unveiling. The Revelation unveils some truths about history, and advances some truths about the end of history, which is still to come.

In 2nd Timothy 3:16, the apostle writes:

16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…

Several of my friends are fond of reminding me that, in the original language, the word here translated “inspired by God,” is literally God breathed. They are absolutely right. This text overlooks the human authors of scripture, concentrating on Scripture’s origin in God himself.

Now in this text from 2nd Timothy, we can be quite sure that “all scripture,” is primarily a reference to the Hebrew Bible, which we now call the Old Testament. The Bible of the Early Church was the Hebrew Bible, but not in Hebrew. Early Christians mainly used a popular (koine) Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that we call The Septuagint, named because, according to tradition, seventy scholars made the translation.

I would not have you to think that the Canon of the Hebrew Bible was fixed too early. In the lifetime of Jesus, the Sadducees and the Pharisees were divided over it. The Sadducees regarded only the five books of the Law as Canonical: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Pharisees regarded both the Law and the Prophets as Canonical, and some of them would have extend the canon to include the Writings, by which they meant “the rest of the books.”

2nd Peter 1:21 also talks about the origin of Scripture. Here God continues to be the source of inspiration, but the text from 2nd Peter takes into account the role of God’s human agents. The apostle writes:

21 … no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. 2nd Peter 1:20-21 RSV

This text, like 2nd Timothy 3:16, insists on Divine Inspiration, but it also allows for human agency. “…men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

Now here is the kicker. Inspiration is no longer limited to Moses and the prophets. By the time 2nd Peter was written the Canon of Scripture had been broadened to include at least some of the Epistles of Paul. We know this because in 2nd Peter 3:16 the author warns his readers that some of what Paul has to say is “hard to understand,” and, as a result, he said, and I quote, “the ignorant and unstable twist (them) to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” End quote. The key phrase here is “as they do the other scriptures.” At the time that 2nd Peter was written, at least some of the Paul’s letters were already regarded as on a par with the Old Testament.

With the text of 2nd Peter as background, let us think for a moment, from a human perspective, about the creation of the New Testament. First, came the Epistles of Paul. 2nd Peter mentions them, but he does not number them, Paul is Peter’s contemporary. 2nd Peter did not mention the gospels as scripture. If the apostle Peter was at all connected with this letter that bears his name, it is easy to see why. Both St. Peter and St. Paul were killed in Rome during the reign of Nero Caesar, probably in the timeframe 65 to 68 A.D. We know from internal evidence that Mark, the earliest gospel, was not written down until just before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD . Likewise, we know from internal evidence, that Matthew and Luke were written down at least a decade after the fall of Jerusalem; and scholars think that John’s gospel was written down a decade after that. Papias, who wrote in the mid second century AD, tells us that the Gospel of Mark was written down by John Mark, who was with Peter in Rome, and took down what Peter taught, though not in any particular order. Depending upon how you date them, the other epistles by Peter, James, John, Jude, and the Revelation, were spread out over the same time frame as the later Epistles of Paul, and the four canonical gospels.

Now let’s think about how it was, on a Sunday Morning, for the early churches. When they came together, they read the Hebrew Bible. Members shared a sniper of scripture, a psalm, a hymn, a spiritual song. (1st Corinthians 14:26). And they remembered what Jesus had said, and they told the stories about Jesus that were a part of the oral tradition. The gospels were not written down for a very good reason. Most of the early disciples were Jews before they were Christians, and most, like Jesus himself, were influenced by the teaching of the Pharisees. The Pharisees looked for a General Resurrection at the end of history, at which time the righteous dead would be raised to Eternal Life, and the unrighteous dead to Judgment. There was never any thought that just one person, like Jesus, would be raised from the dead in isolation from everyone else. Therefore, when Jesus was raised from the dead, and appeared to his disciples, the disciples naturally assumed that the General Resurrection of the dead had begun, and would soon be complete, undoubtedly at the triumphant return of Jesus. The first generation of Christians did not write the gospels down, because they thought that Jesus was coming back, the very next day, or perhaps, the week after that, and besides they still had the first generation of witnesses. In Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia we read about a fellowship meal featured two apostles, both Paul and Peter, a double apostolic dinner! It was only after the first generation of witnesses, like Peter, began to die out, that the gospels were written down. The gospel of Mark probably started to circulate as a result of Peter’s death. And, we know from the internal evidence of John chapter 21, that the death of the beloved disciple undoubtedly influenced the circulation of that gospel.

The important thing for us to see is that the New Testament as we know it was not circulated together for many, many generations. Some churches had only the Oral Tradition about Jesus, which was told and retold, Sunday after Sunday. In addition, some churches had one or more gospels, and one or more epistles, but few churches before the middle of the 2nd Christian century could boast of having all four gospels, or a majority of Paul’s epistles. There were as many scenario’s as there were churches. My point here is that for several generations Christians continued to give their close attention to the Hebrew Bible. The idea that the New Testament would ever completely supersede the Old Testament was absolutely foreign to their thinking, and it ought to be to foreign to ours. As we have seen, it is certainly true that there are some texts in the Hebrew Bible that are for us, so obviously pre-Christ and sub-Christ, that they are hardly worthy of debate. I know of few Christians who think that people with a disability are not worthy to serve in the ministry, or that people born out of wedlock, much less their great grandchildren ten times removed ought to be barred from the fellowship of the church. And Jesus does not asks us to kill our enemies. He ask us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. However, when we read the Old Testament in light of Christ, it continues to be goldmine of practical and spiritual wealth with nuggets of enormous value just waiting to be picked up with almost no effort at all.

Like the early church, we continue to go to the Hebrew Bible for glimpses of the Messiah, and we find them everywhere. We find them in the Law, and in the Prophets, and in the Wisdom Literature, especially in Proverbs and Psalms. Someday, I will do a sermon on these insights. Today, I want to call your attention to the practical and spiritual riches that are so easily available to us in the Old Testament. I will venture three examples.

First, let me call your attention to two very practical examples. Some years ago I had a friend whose house was burglarized. The only thing they took was a valuable collection he had inherited from his father, and improved. When the police investigated they asked if he had had any strangers in the house. He told them that he had recently shown his collection to two men, at different times, that he hardly knew. In fact, he could not furnish a complete name or address for either of them. It is a shame he had not read the story of King Hezekiah that is told in 2nd Kings 20:13. In that story Hezekiah received the envoys of the king of Babylon, and showed them all that was in his storehouses. He showed them his silver, and his gold, and all his spices and fine oils, and his armory, and everything else that was found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them. And when Isaiah the prophet heard of it he said:

“Hear the word of the Lord:17 Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. 18 And some of your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” 2 Kings 20:16-18

Had my friend been familiar with that text, he may not have lost his valuable collection.

Now let me share a story of my own. Some years ago, I had a man in the church I was serving who was very angry at me. He was telling people that I was a good enough preacher, but that I was not very much of a pastor. It was obvious to me that I had let him down, but I did not know how. I prayed about how I should approach him. As I prayed, a line from the book of Proverbs came to me, “A man’s gift makes room for him.” Well, I knew that man wanted something I had. He had admired, and offered to buy my very rare 9 pt. Blue Grass Hardware handsaw. I had only paid ten dollars for it, but he counted it a rare jewel. So I took it, and I showed up on his front porch with that saw in my hands, and when he answered the door, and he “saw the saw,” I said, “I have a gift for you.” He said, “You had better come in.” And I did, and we talked and we became the best for friends. That is a pretty simple story about a pretty simple proverb, but it enable two people to grow spiritually. That man was my friend and ally until his death many years later.

Of course, there are other texts in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament that bear directly on our relationship to God. I would mention just one that has recently come to my attention.

It is from Exodus 3. Moses is tending the sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro, when he turns aside to see a bush that burns with fire and is not consumed. As he approaches the bush, a voice comes to him saying, “Put off you shoes from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. “ Moses is face to face with the glory of the God who calls himself, “I AM.”

In his book The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill talks about the insight that is unavoidable in this passage. He says that in this life, many things will cause us to burn with passion—-whether sex, or drink, or drugs, or power, etc.; and those things invariably consume us. By contrast God causes us to burn with a different kind of passion, and God does not consume us. God’s fire refines us and makes us more than we ever thought we could be. The apostle picks up this theme in the 1st chapter of 1st Peter, saying that “…now, for a little while, we may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of our faith, more precious than fine gold, which, though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise, and honor and glory, at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”The revelation of Jesus Christ will certainly come in its fullness at the end of history. However it is equally true, that the revelation of Christ comes to us, even today, when we are ready to receive it. When the refiner’s fire has done its work, Christ is frequently revealed to us in the here and now, and we come, at last to understand the trials that we have suffered. God treats us like the bush that Mose saw. He refines us with fire, but, to our relief, we are not consumed. We always emerge from the fire of God like gold made pure, and iron turned into steel.

All Scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person of God may be complete, and equipped for any good work. 2 Timothy 3:16

There you have it. The Bible we have, including that portion of it we call the Old Testament, is the Bible that God intends for us to have. It will accomplish all that God purposes for it to do; And if we read it in light of Jesus Christ, it will complete us, and equip us for the good work that God has for us to do.


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2nd in the Series: “Living with the Hard Texts of Scripture”
Exodus 34:29-35
2nd Corinthians 3:1-18

We are talking about the Hard Texts of Scripture. My purpose is not to tear down Scripture, but to establish the Moravian position regarding its proper relationship to Jesus Christ, the Word of God Made Flesh. I do this so you will be able to better explain the hard texts of scripture, as a part of your witness to your friends.

Last week we contrasted “weakness,” in Moses and Jesus and his followers, especially in the person and work of St. Paul. We saw that the text from Leviticus 21:16-24 was both pre-Christ and sub-Christ. Moses thought that a physical weakness or blemish disqualified a man from service at the altar. St. Paul understood that “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2nd Corinthians 12:7-10) Let me give you another example of a hard text that does not measure up to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. In Deuteronomy 23:2 we read:

“No bastard shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”

This is another of those texts that is both pre-Christ and sub-Christ. Can you imagine Jesus Christ saying:

“Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, except those of you born out of wedlock, or those of you who happen to be the child, or grandchild, or great grandchild, or great-great great great great great great, etc. grandchild of one born our of wedlock, and I will give you rest.”

I will say it again. This text is pre-Christ and sub-Christ. Indeed, we might even say that is is sub-Ezekiel, for in Ezekiel 18:20 we read that “…the son shall not suffer for the sin of the father.”

Regardless of what some Radio preachers and popular authors might say, the Bible itself clearly teaches that God’s Revelation is progressive, and that Jesus Christ is the apex of that revelation, and that every text of scripture must ultimately measure up to Him.

In the days of his flesh, Jesus dealt with some of the hard texts of scripture directly.

In John 8:3-11 the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery to him saying, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” The author of the 4th Gospel writes that they said this to test Jesus, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up (Jesus looked-up to her not down upon her!) and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Jesus deals with some of the hard texts of scripture directly, and he deals with some of the hard texts of scripture indirectly. Thus in Matthew 7:12 he says:

12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

And in Matthew 22:36-40 Jesus responds to the question of a Pharisee about which is the great commandment of the Law.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

Scholars tell us that Jesus used the phrase, “the Law and the Prophets,” to refer not just to the Law of Moses, and the books of the Major and Minor Prophets, but to the whole Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. Thus Jesus says that everything in the Hebrew Bible is based upon just two commandments: The commandment to Love God, and the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I think it pretty clear that he interprets all the hard texts of the scripture—-including those he set aside, in light of these two powerful commandments, just as we interpret the hard texts of scripture in light of him.

Because of Jesus Christ, we see all of scripture in a different light. This is what St. Paul was getting at the text before us this morning. He says that Moses was a part of what he calls “the dispensation of death” and “the dispensation of condemnation.” Paul speaks of the dispensation of the Law in negative terms for, as he says in Romans 3:20 “no human being will be justified by works of the Law.” The Law can condemn us—-it makes us aware of sin, but the Law cannot forgive us our sins and give us life. Only Jesus can do that. Still, the dispensation of the Law had a certain glory. Paul says that when Moses went before God, his face shone with the glory of God, until it faded away. Paul says, and admittedly he is reading much out of or into the text of Exodus 34, that in order to keep the people from seeing his fading splendor Moses put on a veil. Paul says that this same veil still lies over the minds of the Jewish people when they read the Law. Only when someone comes to Christ is the veil taken away. Because the Spirit of Christ takes the veil away, and because with unveiled faces we are beholding the glory of the LORD in the face of Christ Jesus, we read scripture very differently than our Jewish brothers and sisters.

There are many examples of this. In Isaiah 53 we read:

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief… he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed…as a lamb led to the slaughter, or a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth, in his humiliation justice was denied him… (selections)

A Jew reads that text and he applies it to the prophet, or perhaps to the whole nation of Israel, as did Rabbi Abraham Henschel. Certainly these two truths were a part of its original meaning. Never the less, looking back through the glory of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ, a Christian reads this text and knows immediately that it is a perfect description of Jesus Christ and what he did for us on his cross. In Acts 8 the Ethiopian Eunuch is reading from Isaiah 53 when the Holy Spirit urges Philip to join him in his chariot. The Ethiopian asked, “Pray sir, about whom does the prophet speak, about himself or another.” And the text declares that “beginning with this scripture, Philip told him the Good News about Jesus Christ.”

Let me give you a few other examples of things that the New Testament says have changed for us because we know Jesus Christ.

I will start with an easy example, one that most of you give thanks for at least several times each week: The Dietary Laws. In Acts 10:12-16 Peter has a vision in which a sheet is let down by its four corners upon the earth, and in it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And a voice came to him saying, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and at last Peter knew that the dietary laws of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament no longer apply to us. Several weeks ago I ate a sandwich at Calabash that Moses called “an abomination before the LORD.” I did not loose any sleep over it; indeed I gained a little. I am allergic to seafood, and took two Benadryl tablets for safety’s sake, and very near slept the afternoon away!

Let me give you a little harder example: The commandments and ordinances of the Law. Moses used the law of commandments and ordinances to make Israel stand out from the nations that surrounded her. Jews wore odd clothes, and Jewish men did not “round the corners of their head,” so that they had dreadlocks dangling down and framing their faces; and they ate only special foods, specially prepared, and one day a week they refused to do work, or anything that resembled work, even when a little work would have made their lives much easier. .These “ commandments and ordinances” of the Law were a real hardship on the people of Israel, but they made the people of Israel powerful witnesses. The peoples who surrounded Israel may not have believed in the Lord God of Israel, but they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the people of Israel believed, for no one would make the sacrifices the Jews made without great faith.

The “commandments and ordinances” of the Law no longer apply to us. I can prove that from Scripture. In Ephesians 2 the apostle writes that there were two kinds of “men” in the world, or two people groups, the Jew, the circumcision, and the Gentile, lacking circumcision. The Jew stood close to God, for he is the recipient of God’s promises and the covenants. By contrast the Gentile stood far off, “without God and without hope in the world.” The temple in Jerusalem was a visual reminder of the distance between the two men. A wall separated the outer, Gentile court of the temple from the inner courts of the temple which were reserved for the Jews. There was a sign on the wall that read: “Whoever is captured (beyond this wall) will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.”

In Ephesians 2 the apostle announces the good news that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles:

15 abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 (that) he might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.

As Christians, we are no longer bound by the law of commandments and ordinances; but we are bound by the deeper truth of the cross, and that separates us from the world in the same way that the law of commandments and ordinances separates Jews from the world. We worship a God whose weakness is stronger than the strength of men. In the person of his Son, God allows himself to be driven out of the world onto a cross. And the Son of God told us that we cannot follow him unless we are willing to take up a cross of our own. In this we are even odder than the Jews. As Paul says in 1st Corinthians:1-22-24:

22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God

Let me give you one more example: Male Circumcision. Circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant just as Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant. It is commanded in the Hebrew Bible, and that command is taken seriously. In Exodus 4, we read that when Moses did not circumcise his own son, God almost killed him. Yet in Romans 2:28-29 St. Paul says:

28 For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.

In Acts 15 we read that at the First Apostolic Council that was held in Antioch the apostles decided that Gentiles did not have to become Jews before becoming Christians. They published this decision saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” This is a clear example of Jesus keeping his promise of John 16, wherein he says that the Holy Spirit would lead us, members of his body the church, into all truth. It is a good thing they were sensitive to the Holy Spirit, despite the literal letter of the Law. Today there are 20 million Jews in the world and 2 billion Christians, one million times more Christians than Jews. I wonder if the church would have fared so well had the First Apostolic Council insisted we become Jews before we become Christians?

Let me sum up. The late E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary and evangelist. He wrote that when he first went to India he found himself defending a long line that stretched from Genesis to Revelation to the history of the Christian Church, to Western Civilization, and beyond. He said spent all his time bouncing up and down behind the line defending this and defending that. He said most of the time the non-Christian world drew the line at something in the Old Testament, or, perhaps, at something in Western Civilization. He felt the heart of the gospel was being left out. He knew that there were many points of question about Scripture and our faith, but only one point of decision. We don’t really decide anything when we decide what we believe about some point of question. God decided those things long ago. We make a real decision when we decide about Jesus Christ, a decision that affects us in time and eternity. So Stanley Jones decided to shorten the line and take his stand at Jesus Christ. When a non-Christian objected to something, he would always ask them to view that thing in light of Jesus Christ. Where he had been a failure, broken in body and in spirit, he became a success. He went on to become one of the most successful evangelists of the 20th Century. Jones’ method is still valid today. When we are forced to defend our faith before the non-Christian world, we must bring everything, including the hard texts ofscripture, to Jesus Christ. This does not make us weaker and less effective in faith; but stronger and more effective. There are many hard texts in scripture, but the splendor of those texts have long since faded like the face that Moses hid behind a veil. Today many of them no longer bind us; but they still serve to highlight the unfading glory that God has revealed in Jesus Christ. If the dispensation of death, came with splendor, the dispensation of life comes with much more splendor, and we are invited to share in it. As the apostle writes:

18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18 RSV


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This sermon is one of a series that is still developing. My purpose is not to put the Bible down, but to establish Jesus Christ as the standard by which Moravians interpret and understand all scripture. I find I cannot say all that I want to say in each sermon. I will try to say all that I need to say in the series. It may help the reader to know that I believe that the Bible is infallible, in the sense that it will accomplish all that God purposes for it to do. I also believe that the Bible that we have is the Bible that God intends us to have. (Isaiah 55:10) I say that knowing that there are thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament alone, and more variations in those manuscripts than there are words in the text. It is my conviction that even this variety of texts has meaning for us. Likewise, I believe that even the hard text of scripture, those that are absolutely contrary to what we know of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, have valuable lessons to teach us. For instance, in Psalm 137:9 we read, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.”The Psalmist is referring to the children of the Babylonians who have destroyed the children of his own people. This does not mean that we will be happy when we destroy the children of our enemies. It does mean that God understands the cries of the human heart even when they are unworthy!

Many of us are in the habit of overlooking the hard texts of scripture, as we might overlook occasional episodes of bad behavior in a normally well behaved child. We are so confident in the everyday goodness of the Bible, that we forgive those texts that seem somehow contrary to the whole without giving them too much thought.

Those who have yet to settle the issue of faith and discipleship are less forgiving. Let me see if I can illustrate.

I remember a Sunday at my last church when the wife of a good friend got up and walked out of the sanctuary while I was reading the Old Testament lesson. The text that offended her was from Genesis 22. It told the story of how God tested Abraham’s devotion. At God’s direction, Abraham took his son Isaac up a mountain in the land of Moriah to offer him as a sacrifice. Abraham bound the boy, and laid him upon a makeshift altar. He took his knife in his hand and was preparing to strike when, at the last possible moment, the angel of the LORD stayed Abraham’s hand, and he looked up to see a ram caught in a thicket. Abraham had obeyed God, holding nothing back, not even his son, and God had provided the sacrifice.

Devout Jews and Christians hear the story of Abraham and Isaac and we pay tribute to the faith of the man we know as “the father of all who have faith.” My friend’s wife heard the same story, and she had just given birth to her first son, and she thought of him, and she was aghast that God would put a parent like herself to such a test.

I knew immediately why she had walked out, and later that week I met with her. I tried to explain to her that, in the context of the Ancient Israel, the story of Abraham and Isaac was not just a story about how God tested the devotion of Abraham, but it was also a story about how the LORD God of Israel did not require child sacrifice.

That may not seem so very important to those of us who have lived in 20th and 21st century America, but it was exceedingly important to the ancient Jews. Jewish parents often lived in the same vicinity with those who worshiped other gods like Molech, who did require child sacrifice. Molech was a larger than life-sized idol often fashioned of bronze. He had the head of a bull, or a cow, and the body of a man. His arms were extended and joined so that they could temporarily bear the weight of a child. Molech stood over a fire, and his arms were heated red hot, and a child was placed in them by the child’s mother, or father, and the child was immediately burned, and for a few seconds the child screamed and fought against the pain, and then the child dropped into the flames that burned at the idol’s feet to die, quickly, we hope. I told my friend’s wife that Molech made the God of Abraham seem about as threatening as a glass of warm milk at bed time, but the damage was done, and though he remains a friend, and she remains one of the best people I have ever known, she never did come back to church.

Some hard texts of the Bible are easy to explain—at least to believers. Others require more effort. Take the text from Leviticus 21 that is before us this morning. Therein Moses tells Aaron that when considering his descendants for service at the altar in the Tabernacle, only the cream of the crop will be good enough. Moses told Aaron that no man could serve as a priest who had a blemish, or a mutilated face, or a limb that was too long, or too short, or who was blind, or lame, or who had a hunchback, or crushed testicles, or who was a dwarf, or who had an itching disease, or scabs. This text seems to suggest that the prophet of God we know as Moses could have used a little sensitivity training. Both the government of the United States, and the government of the Great State of North Carolina have made provisions for people with disabilities to have ingress and egress to our public buildings, and the people who planned and built New Philadelphia have tried to make it easy for people in wheel chairs to get in and out of our sanctuary, and fellowship hall. And I cannot imagine that you would overlook the opportunity to call a well qualified pastor because he, or she, had a limp, or had impaired vision. Does that make us somehow superior to the prophet of God, Moses?

To even begin to explain this text (and others like it) to people like the wife of my friend, we must once more look closely into the historical circumstances of the time in which it was written. At the very least, this text is a guarantee that children who were born into the community of ancient Israel, who were less than “perfect,” were not killed at birth, but were allowed to grow-up, and continue to be a part of the community. They could even share the meal from the altar, they just could not serve there. To our modern sensibilities this may seem an unworthy compromise, and no doubt it is; but it was a huge step forward over the practices of the peoples that surrounded ancient Israel. Ordinarily, perfect children were offered to Molech! If a child was less than perfect, and often, the only acceptable perfection was the perfection of being a male child, then the child was often taken into the wilderness and exposed to the elements, and left to die, or else they were tossed over a cliff to die in a trash heap at the bottom of a gully.

Of course, this explanation is weak tea for many people like the wife of my friend, and I would suggest a stronger brew. I have told you before that God’s revelation of himself is progressive. God’s revelation of himself in Nature is progressive, or at least, progressively understood. We know more about natural world than did any of the human authors of the Bible. .King David looked at the heavens with his naked eye, and saw tens of thousands of stars, and he said, “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” We look at the heavens through powerful telescopes born millions of miles beyond the earth by satellites, and we see billions of stars, and we know that, “the heavens are telling the glory of God, AND HOW!!!” Likewise, the Special Revelation of the Bible is progressive, and progressively understood. Moses knew more about he Law than Abraham, because Abraham lived before the Law was given. The prophets who spoke of the coming of the Messiah, including John the Baptist, glimpsed the glory of God, but they did not see it with the same clarity as the disciples who beheld the glory of the LORD in the face of Christ Jesus, risen from the dead. The progressive nature of Special Revelation means that God was not content with speaking the word though his prophets, priests and kings, like Moses, Isaiah, and David. Nor was God content with writing down the word in the Law and the Prophets. God ultimately had to fix the Word, and let it live in the person of Jesus Christ. A picture is worth 1,000 words; and the value of a living Word is incalculable. That is what St. John is getting at when he wrote:

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

That is what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews was getting at when he wrote:

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him (did you get that “before him!”) no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do. Hebrews 4:12

If you want to see what God is really like, you cannot be content with Leviticus 21, you have got to read the rest of Scripture, particularly the gospels. You have got to see for yourself how Jesus reached out to the poor, and the lame, and the blind, and the deaf, and the leper, and restored them to their families and communities, even before he healed them. It is interesting that one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah, predicted that the Messiah himself, whom we know to be Jesus, “had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2 RSV)There are other texts that need be to considered also. In 1st Corinthians 12:20-22 St. Paul considered those who belong to Christ’s body the church. Infused with the Spirit of Jesus, Paul takes an approach completely opposite that suggested by Moses to Aaron in Leviticus 21. The apostle writes:

20 …there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable.

In case you doubt the relevance of this passage, in 2nd Corinthians 12 Paul talks about his own weakness. He says that to keep him being too elated by the abundance of revelations he had received from the Lord, he was given a thorn in the flesh. Some scholars think this thorn in the flesh was weak eyesight. Others think it was epilepsy, which was common among the Caesars, too. There have been many suggestions. It matters not; what matters is how Paul bore his weakness. He says that, three times, he asked the LORD to take it away; and three times he received the same answer: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul said, “I will all the more boast in my weakness, so that the power of Christ might rest upon me.”

How many times have you known someone who suffered some terrible illness, or disadvantage, who yet rose to be one of the most remarkable and effective people you have ever known? Samuel Logan Bengal, the founder of the Salvation Army was told he was going blind. He said, “I have served God with my sight, I will serve God with my blindness.” Fanny Crosby wrote hundreds of gospel songs. Who knows whether she would have written so much and so well had she not been blind? And who knows whether Stephen Hawking would have been the scientist he has been apart from his battle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease? And who knows whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have been the great president that he was if he had not suffered with Polio? The Bible seems to be on the side of the underdog. The book of Judges tells us Gideon was chosen to be a Judge over Israel because he belonged to the least family of the least clan in the least tribe in Israel. God alone made Gideon a mighty man of valor. God anointed Saul as the first king of Israel because he looked like a king, he stood a head taller than any other man in Israel; but Saul was a colossal failure. When Samuel anointed David king over Israel in Saul’s stead, he was the least of Jesse’s sons, and the one who looked least like a king. David was certainly the underdog when he went out against Goliath of Gath, the champion of the Philistines.

God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. No where is that any more obvious than in the person of Jesus the Messiah himself. The Jews wanted a conquering king. They wanted a Messiah who would rout the Romans, and drive them from Jerusalem, and from the Holy Land, and rule the nations with a rod of iron. Jesus was the Messiah Israel waited for; but not the Messiah they expected. Jesus said that he came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus was rejected by the majority of the people who waited for him, given a mockery of a trial by the Romans, and crucified between two common criminals. Yet, the cross of Jesus has become the single most remarkable and powerful symbol in the history of the world, a symbol not of failure but of victory. When we look back at the cross we do not see the bad end of a good man, we see a road traveled once for all by a now risen and victorious Savior. It has often been said that the Risen Christ trampled the cross under his feet. There is a senses in which he did, but a sense in which he did not. There is a sense in which Jesus still rules from that cross, the most winsome and attractive revelation of God in the history of our planet. From the cross Jesus stretches out his arms to welcome all those who are conscious of their need for a Savior, and it matters not if we are down and out or up and coming, it matters only that we know we need him..

Let me sum up with a story. Some years ago I was participating in a dialogue between the Moravian Church and various reformed denominations. They style themselves “Sola Scriptura,” or “Scripture Alone,” and they try to fit the Bible into a single system of doctrine. We Moravians style ourselves, “Christ Centered,” and, in The Ground of the Unity, we confess that we do not look for a single system of doctrine in the Bible. One day, after lunch, a representative of one of the Reformed Churches brought in a copy of a new book by Bishop Spong that dealt with the hard texts of scripture, like some of those I have mentioned this morning. The book was a best seller, and he assumed our familiarity with it. He said, “How would you Moravians deal with these texts?” Herman Weinlick and I put our heads together for a brief moment, then we answered. We said, “Well, we would simply say that some texts of Scripture are pre-Christ and some texts of scripture are sub-Christ, they don’t measure up to the fullness of the Revelation of God that we see in Him.” Without exception, very head in the room nodded their affirmation, and many faces expressed an envy at the simplicity with which we Moravians could sweep aside what for them was a huge theological debate. Now here is the kicker. Herman and I were perhaps the most conservative people in the room, yet since we belonged to a church that had always made Christ central, and everything else, even the Bible, secondary or ministerial, we could deal with the hard texts of scripture with a simplicity that other children of the Protestant Reformation could only envy. Now some people will be troubled by our Moravian simplicity. I would point out that we are not completely alone. Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, maintained that the Scripture was inspired in direct proportion that it preached Christ. Where people are devalued, and Christ ignored; he questioned inspiration; where Christ is preached as crucified, and Risen, that is where people were lifted-up, as Christ himself lifted us up, he thought inspiration was doubly potent. Let me give you an even more remarkable example. In 1963 the Southern Baptist convention adopted the standard that the Bible was the Word of God, with one proviso: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted in Jesus Christ.” Unfortunately, in the 1970’s, when the literalists took over that denomination, they dropped this criterion from the confession. Though I value my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters, I see this commission as just one more reason why God needs a little denomination like the Moravian Church. We may be the least of the least, but God has given us a message about Jesus Christ, and his role among us, and his role regarding scripture, that is more needed in the critical and sophisticated world of today than ever before.


Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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