“You search the scriptures, because you think in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me: yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
The Daily Office, Proper 15, Tuesday
From the ages of 12 to about 15, I was involved in a charismatic group who took the scripture literally as a word for word guide to being “saved”. At that time in my development it was a good thing. Yes, it promoted a relationship with God, and therefor the world, as being fear based, but for a precocious child such as me, fear was a good thing, keeping me out of big trouble, and maybe even keeping me alive. Eventually though as my mind continued to mature, I could not reconcile the contradictions in the Bible, and if I was to be honest to myself I had to acknowledge the truth of this. Life is not a stationary stagnant thing, so why in heaven or on earth would the spiritual life be any different? Of course it is not.
In many ways, the Gospel of John brought me through this troubling transition of the sanctity of absolutism and into the holiness of possibilities in the mysteries of life and of God. I think God is in part mystery. The psalmist wrote in Psalm 18 that God, “made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water.” The whole notion of God in human form is in itself mysterious and this most mysterious gospel allowed me to begin to become a little comfortable with the notion of mystery resting in the heart of faith while living in a life and world of uncertainties.
It’s funny, ask a person who’s read the gospels, even more than once, “When in his ministry does Jesus go to confront the Temple authorities?” Most will answer that Jesus went to the Temple at the end of his ministry, creating the confrontations which ultimately led to Jesus’ arrest and execution, as described in the first three gospels. Yet in John, the Temple confrontation occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. For the first time I saw the conflict of a purely literal frame of mind in my reading of the scriptures: even the gospels cannot reach a literal agreement. I thought that the literal compliance to these words written on paper would lead me to the Promised Land, would give God good reason to sweep me up in the literal rapture. I thought the scripture was a “how to” book; follow the rules and never be troubled again in this life and after it, be spared the prospects of hell. Easy.
But I can’t follow the rules perfectly. No one can. The rules can’t provide eternal life. No book can provide eternal life, not even the Bible. I know this now, but there was a time when I thought I had to believe the Bible literally, word for word, without question, or be punished. In this frame of mind, the Bible was then a weapon, one to punish myself with, and one to punish others with. The Bible was intended to be an inspirational tool, a plow to till the soil of the heart and mind to make them ready for God’s love, but literalism and absolutism beat God’s plow into swords and spears to be wielded for spiritual and emotional violence, even to physical violence. In the voices of literalism and absolutism, God’s scriptural call for loving community is distorted into the dismal tortured cry of hypocrisy and division.
I know in my heart that truly God’s spirit moves through the Bible, giving signs, “bearing witness” in Jesus’s words written in John. They are Jesus’ words, words of love. They are words of compassion. They are words which promise justice, realized in the lives of “the righteous” whose righteousness is found in their care for the poor, the sick, the friendless and the outcasts, in living the life Jesus calls us to. The healing salvation, the life we come to when we come to Jesus, is not the life promised by a book, but a life born of the promise of God’s loving spirit, reborn in the hearts of humans who accept the way of Jesus as the way of loving God, loving ourselves, loving our neighbors and even our enemies.
Verse 42 reads, “But I know you do not have the love of God in you.” In this verse Jesus explains the folly of the literalist absolutist of his time, of our time and in my life at times. The Bible means absolutely nothing if the love of God is not in me. If the love of God is not in me, then no matter how perfectly, literally and absolutely I believe the Bible, it will do neither me, nor anyone else, any good at all towards the healing salvation found in loving God and all God’s works.
There is a requirement to realizing God’s love in my life, humility. The humility to more absolutely trust God’s love offered to us in Jesus. The humility to trust in the love of Jesus, trusting in God’s love more than in my trust of scripture or a particular interpretation of it, which means too that I have to trust the mystery of God, the mystery of loving. I have to humbly trust the mystery of God’s love made real in my love of humanity, the humanity I like and the humanity I may despise. I have to humbly have faith in God's love in you. I have to have humility of faith to trust God's love when you fail me and I fail you. I have to have the humility and faith in the Spirit of love living in me to realize Jesus’ loving life, in the uncertain now, now living faithfully toward living the eternal life, now in love.