This summer, we came together in small groups to share with one another about our experiences of God in this community of faith over the many, many years we have been together. And one story, one core value we heard over and over was how much you value the way our community nurtures and encourages each person to learn and grow in faith. How we don’t tell each other what to believe, but instead encourage you to learn and decide for yourself. How you are welcome here, whether you believe or whether you don’t, whether your faith is solid or whether you have more doubts than certainties.
We heard about how we listen to one another’s stories, to one another’s lives and are open to having your story shape my living, my understanding, my faith. How we help teach one another the tools that foster your own growth and then give one another the space and the trust essential to becoming who you are. And even if you don’t know who you are, even if you never fully realize who you are – we trust that the best wisdom needed to sort it out is found within you when we are community together.
And we know how demanding this way of being together is on each of us. It would be so much simpler to say: here is the answer, here is the rule, the scriptures tell us right here what you must do to live the way God invites.
It would be simpler because we could easily judge who’s right and who’s wrong. It would be simpler because we would easily see when we need to change and when others need to. … It would be simpler – but that’s not the way we understand faith to work, that is not what we understand the Bible is for.
One way to look at the question is to ask whether the Bible is a rule-book or a guide-book? … Do we find there a list of instructions, one that answers every question we have about God and life and living? … No. It’s not a book of facts or lists that we are to memorize. It’s not a magic book – open it and the answer will appear if we could only find the right passage, the right story. … Instead, in the sacred text, we encounter a way of living together, a way of being that guides our choices, shapes our values, nurtures us and encourages us to grow in God’s ways.
Even the stories themselves, we realize, aren’t always what they appear. Unlike most books, imprinted and bound, this book is really a collection of books – more like a library, it contains poetry and history, apocalyptic writing and parables. And we know that you don’t read books in science class the same way you read poetry in English class – so we learn to look more closely at the writing and the story behind it. And we learn to seek out the context of the time and place each particular passage was written and ask what the back-story tells us of the story itself. … What messages and meanings would the original audience have understood that we might no longer know, and then what does that help us understand today?
Some might say: That’s a lot of work! And it is. But if we take God seriously, if we take the Way of Jesus Christ seriously, if we take our faith seriously, then we are invited to do our own work to understand our beliefs – to live life’s questions.
Now some might say – but what about the 10 commandments? Surely they are rules we are to follow. Aren’t they? We teach them to our children – don’t steal, don’t lie, especially about someone else.
They are very clear cut and they help our children get a firm start in living life following God’s ways – just like the Israelites, people who had been enslaved for hundred of years, made to follow ways that were not their own, forbidden to practice their religion, forbidden to study and learn God’s ways and then live them. And when the exodus happened and they were finally free to live life together as one people, to build their own society, they were as new, as fresh, as young, as lacking in experience as children. And, we are told, God gave them black and white rules to follow – begin here, God says: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your parents, but most importantly of all remember me, honor me in all of life.
Begin here – and we do. Yet, as we grow, we find that life is not always choices between good and bad, that life has much more nuance than that – hard and fast rules seldom work across all of life.
(A friend of mine lived in a foreign country as a missionary for many years. In one place he and his wife lived, a friend who was also a missionary was being hunted by the local military, not for anything she did but simply because they could. And he knew, when they found her to question her she will be killed – he knew this, he’d seen this happen again and again and again in this place, and he know this time would not be any different; and when the military comes to ask you if you know where your friend is you are hosting a dinner party with her there … what do you do?)
‘Don’t lie’ the commandment says. And right then you realize life has so much that isn’t good or bad, right or wrong. There isn’t a list of commandments or rules long enough to cover them all – although it seems the Israelite leaders and the scripture writers may have tried … in addition to the Commandments, there are more than 600 rules and laws and codes found in scripture. Yet even then it’s not enough to cover the circumstances we will encounter in our living.
Today’ scripture passage continues to be the fullest description of how the church should live out its mission of raising disciples in the Way of Jesus Christ:
- We are called to teach and to be taught.
- We are called to fellowship.
- We are called to break bread.
- We are called to pray and be prayed for.
The passage reminds us: together they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the breaking of bread and prayers. Together – in community – that is where we begin. In community we support and nurture, we teach and guide, we listen and give space to one another to grow in faith. Together we share what we know and listen to what others know. … The beautiful biblical narratives of resurrection appearances are powerful stories of community; of believers, doubters, and strugglers gathering and breaking apart, and gathering again. … We break bread together and get to know one another, learn from one another’s experiences. We pray together and sing together. We laugh together and cry together. … And through it all, we help teach one another the tools that foster our own growth and then give one another the space and the trust essential to becoming who you are. And we trust – we trust that the best wisdom needed to sort it out is found within you when we are community together.