This is a sermon I preached at Bainsford Parish Church, Falkirk, on 7th October 2018.
I don’t know how many of you are parents. I have three children… well, I say children, they are all grown up now and my wife and I have the house to myself. However, I remember the days of having three little people running round the house, getting into general playful mischief. One thing I particularly remember is one word, a word which has become a bit of a cliché when talking about childhood, but really does get uttered by children as often as you are told before you have kids.
You can’t have ice cream for tea.
Be careful on that climbing frame.
Stop trying to cut your brother’s hair.
And so on. And on. And on.
Children are sponges, not only soaking up information from everywhere, but actively seeking out new knowledge and experiences. It is how we all learn to become fully rounded human beings, by constantly observing, enquiring and trying things for ourselves. That’s why children always ask “Why?”, because they want to delve deeper, to understand the reason behind rules, the workings behind objects and, well, pretty much everything.
When I hear that line from Mark’s Gospel, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”, this is the aspect of childhood which comes to mind for me; that enquiring, challenging nature which seems to be inbuilt into all of us.
Mark 10:15 is a verse I have heard several times used to justify an unquestioning, blind faith. The thought is that children accept what adults tell them and go along with it. This kind of interpretation inspires an unthinking kind of Christianity, one where we are expected to believe everything we hear from the pulpit and let it go unchallenged, to take a very literal view of Biblical scripture with no nuance or context taken into account. It turns Christians into robots, declaring faith in Jesus, but not really knowing what that means or entails.
It is the exact opposite of what I think Jesus was trying to tell his followers.
Yes, children do trust adults, especially their parents (sadly, there are exceptions to this. Especially where the child has had nothing but negative experiences with adults). This side of the fundamentalist interpretation is spot on; Jesus is telling us to trust God. He is telling us that we are not ready to understand everything, that things will happen which we simply cannot explain and that we need to use these times to put our trust in God that, in the mess of our lives, His will is being worked out somehow.
That is pretty much the definition of faith; an implicit trust in the One who we have put our faith in that they have our back, that things will work out.
But, in this trust, we are not being told that we should stop questioning, that we should stop challenging, that we should stop trying to gain a deeper understanding.
Have a listen to Ephesians 6:5-8
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”
For several hundred years this was used to justify that slavery was not only acceptable, but was a natural part of God’s order. Along with a very odd interpretation of Genesis 9 they meant that, as far as the Church was concerned, the Bible was clear; it commanded us to retain slavery, to allow the ownership and sale of human beings.
Then along came people such as William Wilberforce, arguing that the Church needed to look at these passages again, they needed to question whether they had possibly got it wrong for many centuries. They argued that, taken as a part of the whole of scripture, all men, women and children were created equally in God’s own image and that, through Christ, all were now free.
When Paul wrote about slavery he was writing about the situation as it was at the time, not writing that this meant slavery was a God ordained institution.
They argued that, far from a divine instruction, slavery was evil and needed to be eradicated.
And they were attacked for it. They were told that they were turning their backs on the Bible and on God’s natural order. They were condemned as unChristian. They were shunned, ridiculed…
Centuries of the Church teaching that the Bible was clear, centuries of the faithful simply accepting that was the case, but it was all wrong.
Slavery would never have ended had it not been for men of women of faith listening to their consciences, rereading scripture, questioning perceived wisdom and coming to a deeper understanding that a huge injustice, a huge wrong, was being justified and encouraged by wrongheaded reading of the Bible.
We cannot have an unquestioning faith. When we do that it leads to great injustices, as the Church has perpetuated against slaves, against women and, during the era of Apartheid in South Africa, against all non-whites. It leads to conflict, oppression and hatred. And it leads to people turning their back on the Gospel, because what they are seeing is a warped, distorted view of it.
In the Koran (there’s a phrase you don’t hear in many sermons!) Christians are referred to as “People of the Book”. The recognition of the importance of the Bible to our faith is recognised even by those of other faiths. The Bible is our most tangible link to God, it is His inspired word, telling us the story of His relationship with His people from creation until the first years after the resurrection. It is our best guide to His will for humankind.
But when we treat it as a literal, historical story rather than recognising some of it as being allegories to help us understand, we do the Bible a disservice. When we read the words on the page and take it all literally, as if it was written to a 21st Century audience we fail to grasp the true wonders of its meaning.
We need to question everything in this book. Last year we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. One of the mantras of the early reformers was “Back to the sources!”, as recognition that to understand the Bible they needed to look at the original texts and understand the culture and time each part was actually written in.
We need to keep that in mind ourselves as we read the Bible. It wasn’t written in English, or in the 2000s. What did the author actually mean when they wrote what they wrote? So often it comes out as something rather different to the words we read in our modern translations, so it’s always worth reading the work others have already put in by reading different commentaries, or even just talking it over with other believers.
And we need to come to it with an open mind. If we come to the Kingdom of God like a child then we come to it with no prejudices or pre-existing ideas about it. I know that, more often than I’d like to admit, I probably read the Bible looking for it to confirm what I already believe rather than allowing it to shape my beliefs. And I know I’m not the only one. When we do that we are trying to make God in our own image, rather than the other way round.
We should always approach scripture prayerfully, humbly and willing to find ourselves challenged. Not only should we be ready to question, we should be ready to learn as well. If we think we are right about every point in life, then God has a huge shock in store for us when we meet Him face to face.
There is one thing we must never forget, though. As we approach God’s Kingdom and His word, as well as be ready to question and to be changed by it, we need to remember to always view it through the lens of Jesus Christ. He may not always be mentioned, especially in the Old Testament, but Jesus is present from the very first word of Genesis to the final word of Revelation. His message of salvation, of love, repentance and forgiveness must always be remembered whenever we read this book. The evolution of God’s relationship with His people, culminating in the Cross and the empty tomb, must always be in our minds as we read His word.
If we read anything in our Bible and it clashes with the message of Jesus then we are reading it wrong and we need to think again. If we read scripture and think it tells us we can condemn anyone, or hate anyone, or exclude anyone for any reason then we need to rethink our beliefs, because that is not the Gospel.
Be willing to learn and to change ourselves and our deepest held beliefs.
But more than anything, put our trust in Christ and the salvation He offers us to show us the way, the truth and the life.