Sunday, May 07, 2017

May 7, 2017 - When the Bible Conflicts

1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Have you ever watched children, usually siblings, arguing about whether or not they are allowed to do something? “Mommy said I could have an ice cream!” “No, she didn’t, she said you couldn’t have an ice cream!” Each side is fully convinced that they’re right, and that Mommy said what they say she said, and if you’re the babysitter, or the well-intentioned grandparent watching the children who doesn’t want to upset either the grandchildren or Mommy, it can be a bit anxiety-provoking. Each side claims the authority of Mommy, and yet they’re arguing the complete opposite. What is a person to do? (I’m not going to tell you to give them the ice cream.)

More seriously, though, we encounter this same kind of problem in our Scripture readings today, and more generally, in the Bible as a whole. The problem is that the Christian testimonies in our Scriptures sometimes disagree about what God wants us to do, or not do. Today, this disagreement is about what to do in the face of undeserved suffering. Our second reading, the first letter attributed to Peter, says that when you are suffering, you should just put up with it, not try to fight it or resist it or escape it, and God will approve. The other reading, our Gospel reading, says that Jesus looks harshly on the thieves and bandits that try to steal the sheep and destroy them and kill them. Jesus says that the sheep should follow only him, and not the one who would abuse them. So here we have two very different passages, one saying to submit to undeserved suffering, which really means abuse, either personal or societal, and the other saying to escape it and follow Christ. The first says that God approves of us suffering, and the second says that God sends Christ to protect us from it. The first has been used by certain people in certain situations to keep victims from leaving their abusers, while the second condemns the ones inflicting the abuse.

The conflict between these two passages highlights something bigger than just the specific issue of abuse, though. The Bible, when taken in its entirety, contains deep conflict within it, and certain passages lend themselves to interpretations that create division. The Bible enables us to create lines of us versus them, or me versus you, or even our God versus their God. And we can’t just ignore it, or decide we’re done with this whole Bible thing and abandon it. Some people do, and I’m not here to bash them, because they are trying to act with integrity in the best way that they can. But we are here because we believe that the Bible is God’s word to us. We believe that it is the witness of individuals who have been touched by the presence of God. In its entirety. And so we have to take this conflict seriously, and we have to wrestle with it. And we have to accept that there may not be any easy or simple resolution.

Which is not nearly as funny as whether or not the kids get ice cream. When we encounter passages from the Bible that conflict with one another, we become anxious, and uncertain, and overwhelmed. We see what looks like two mutually-exclusive positions, and people claiming to be on one side or the other, and, more importantly, claiming that God is with their side and not with the other, and we, or at least I, wonder if that means that there is a possibility that God is on the other side, and not on mine. I think is actually what makes us uncomfortable and anxious when we see conflict in the Bible, or even in the church. It’s the thought that maybe God is not on my side. That if God is on the side of those who interpret the Bible differently than me, then God can’t be on my side, too. That if God loves them, then God can’t love me. And, of course, given the choice, I would rather God love me than them, and be on my side rather than theirs, but I don’t know for certain which side God is on.

In the midst of this uncertainty and anxiety over conflict in the Bible, we hear Jesus’ words to us in the Gospel reading, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundantly. In the Greek, that word translates to ‘over and above,’ ‘more,’ ‘great,’ ‘excessively.’ Jesus is saying that he comes to give us abundant liv\fe, over and above what we need, excessive in its giving, generous, so much more than we could use. So much life that it overflows our capacity for it, like a river overflowing its banks and spreading all over the fields to water them. So much life that it bursts out of the tomb, and knocks the stone down on its way out to us.

Really, the life Jesus has for God’s children is so abundant that it is available to all. When Jesus says that he has come that “they” may have life, we know he means the sheep. All the sheep. But might he not also mean the thieves and bandits, too? Are “they” not also in need of life? Moreso than the rest of us, one might even argue. Jesus is the Son of God, truly human and truly divine, surely Jesus has more than enough life for all of God’s sheep, and enough for those who would harm the sheep. He shared his body and blood with Judas, he asked God to forgive those who were crucifying him, he blessed Peter who had abandoned him. He died knowing that his death would provide redemption for even the most sinful. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Because the God whom we worship, and who raised Jesus, and who grants us Easter life, is so much deeper than we can imagine, and capable of encompassing conflicting sides in ways we can’t even understand. In God’s eyes, there is no us and them, no you and me, only God’s beloved children. We may not be able to understand how God inspired opposing Biblical passages, but maybe we can understand how God’s love for those who wrote those passages inspired them to write what they believed God wanted. And surely we can understand that Jesus came to bring those writers life, in all its abundance. And if we can understand that, then maybe we can come even some of the way to understanding that in this life, here and now, God loves those who have completely different beliefs about what God wants us to do in this life. God loves “them.” And us. Sheep and sheep thieves. Together. 

This claim that God’s acceptance and love of God for God’s children is so abundant that everyone is included is even more radical than what either “side” would claim for themselves about God. It is a challenge to accept, certainly. It is really difficult to hear that Jesus has come to give abundant life to those who perpetrate suffering on the innocent, and that they, too, are among his flock. At times, I admit that it seems insurmountable. But, on the other hand, in those times when I find myself on the wrong side, when it turns out that something I have done has caused suffering, I am so grateful to be included among God’s sheep, to receive that abundant life that turns my own around. What is Good News of forgiveness and God’s love for them is Good News for the rest of us, too. 

For the last two thousand years, Christians have been arguing about whether or not Mommy said Yes to the ice cream or No. And the arguments have more often than not escalated to each side screaming at the other, “Mommy loves me, and she doesn’t love you!” But Mommy always has and always will love all her children. Jesus came so that all may have life, and have it abundantly. Easter resurrection is for all of God’s Creation, and it is even better than ice cream. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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