Rev. Peter Faass
A church in the area has a front lawn sign proclaiming they are a “Bible following church.” My travels take me by it frequently. Each time I read the sign, I ponder what that statement means to their congregation and what it’s supposed to mean to me.
Exactly what are they trying to convey to travelers as they pass by that sign? What I understand is this: If you are proclaiming that theirs is a Bible following church, it means there are churches that are not Bible following.
Since the Bible is the foundational text for Christians who believe it conveys God’s word to them, this is a derogatory and judgmental proclamation. It means this Bible following congregation believes that those non-Bible following churches are either ignoring God’s word in scripture or are not taking it very seriously. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, the subtext of the message is if you’re one of those churches “You got it bad and that ain’t good.”
The differentiation between Bible following and alleged non-Bible following churches is a conflict that arose in Christianity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the development of the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship, which examined, among other things, the contextual, cultural and literary components of scripture. It discerned to hear the word of God through these lens. To approach the Bible in this manner is to believe that the scriptures are a living text and have something important and new to say to us in each age and in every human circumstance we find ourselves. The Episcopal Church studies the Bible through this methodology.
At its inception, this approach to the Bible was not welcomed by all believers and resulted in the fundamentalist response, which believed that the Bible was the literal word of God in its entirety and could not be understood any other way. This belief is summarized in the bumper sticker that says, “God said it, and I believe it.” Fundamentalists see the Bible as being complete as received and is to be apprehended at face value. This literal interpretation of the Bible often reduces the text to legalism and can err on the side of lacking in compassion.
Our friends in the United Church of Christ have a slogan that captures the historical-critical approach perfectly: God is still speaking. If God is still speaking, we must listen and be attentive to hearing the word of the “still-speaking God” in our lives.
It’s hardly a new concept to listen for the word of the still-speaking God. In today’s story about Joseph, we have a wonderful example where someone is confronted with choosing the literal, legalistic understanding of the Bible or hearing the still-speaking voice of God. We know the story: Joseph is engaged to Mary and they are to be married.
Before she has had marital relations with Joseph, Mary discovers that she is with child by the power of the Holy Spirit. Note the sequential order of who knows what and when. At first, Joseph only becomes aware of Mary’s pregnancy but not its origins. Mary (but not Joseph) knows her pregnancy is by the Holy Spirit.
Subsequently, the angel of the Lord reveals the pregnancy’s divine source to Joseph in a dream. Initially all Joseph knows is that Mary is pregnant. Naturally, he assumed she had sexual relations with another man. I mean in the first century was there any other way?
We do not know if Joseph believed the liaison to be consensual or not, but considering how young and vulnerable Mary was, the latter was highly possible. Regardless her pregnancy’s circumstances, Mary was no longer seen as suitable for marriage, and Biblical law was clear about what should happen to her.
Deuteronomy 22:23-24 states, “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
That was the law. To take it literally meant that Mary would need to be stoned to death for this breach of the law – but Joseph didn’t do that. The text states that “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [Joseph] planned to dismiss [Mary] quietly.”
Joseph decides to spare Mary public humiliation and death. He decides to let her go quietly, possibly to the protection of friends or family, slipping into anonymity and delivering her child privately. While the future prospects for Mary as an un-wed mother were not great, they were certainly better than death.
Confronted with a challenging – if not impossible – situation, Joseph lets his conscience hear the compassionate, still speaking word of God to guide his decision. Joseph didn’t follow the literal letter of Torah law.
Because he ignored the law’s direction, some people wouldn’t have considered Joseph a Bible follower. Matthew’s Jewish audience, whose literal belief in the Bible was fundamental to their faith, were Bible followers. To them, Joseph’s compassionate option didn’t adhere to law and would have been see as out of favor with God.
And yet… Joseph is described as “being a righteous man” even as he decides to not follow the literal law.
This nativity story about Joseph established the pattern of what Jesus’ life and ministry would role model: every time he was confronted with a choice between the literal law and compassion, rigidity or love, Jesus always chose compassion and love. Jesus’ acts of compassion and love show the still-speaking God who guides us to lead a righteous way of life.
Joseph is a glimpse of what Jesus will epitomize and teach about acts of justice – even when these acts violated the law and predominant culture’s expectations. This was especially true when following such laws would harm society’s weakest, neediest and most vulnerable, like unwed mothers.
This teaching reaches its apex in Matthew’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus challenges the law and all those self-proclaimed Bible followers. He says to his listeners, “you have heard that it was said, but I say to you.”
Jesus’ sermon turns their literal, legalistic world upside down and inside out as he introduces God’s reign, which is built upon compassion, justice and love.
My sisters and brothers, we Christians are always called to respond as God’s righteous people when confronted with difficult decisions and challenging times. There will be occasions when we will be compelled to choose between being Bible followers or Jesus followers.
I predict for the foreseeable future that we will be put to the test – and in fact are being tested. We will increasingly have more Joseph moments as we see the weak, needy and most vulnerable assaulted by many quarters. Laws will be challenged or changed to further harm the already disadvantaged among us. As we encounter these challenging circumstances our choice to follow the legal manipulators or the still-speaking God we hear in Jesus will be a stark one. We must do this in deed and action – not just in prayer or social media posts.
Will we be Bible followers or Jesus followers? Like Joseph, I hope we will opt to hear God’s still-speaking voice and respond with justice, compassion and love in all we do, and all that we are. Our salvation lies in that choice.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.