Hope…Even for the Past
“The Encouragement of Scripture”
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Romans 15: 1-6
The amazing thing is that people were quoting Scripture to Paul every day to prove he was wrong about the Gentiles. Most of the New Testament had not even been written yet, so the only Scripture the Christians of Paul’s time had was the Hebrew Scriptures – our Old Testament.
the Old Testament that said that God’s covenant was with the people of
So many Christians were teaching that Gentiles couldn’t become part of God’s covenant unless they became Jews first…they had to be circumcised and adopt the dietary and purity codes of the Scriptures. They had to become Jews in order to become Christians. They quoted certain verses from the Bible to Paul every day to prove their point.
Now some Gentiles were becoming defensive and saying if the Jewish Christians are going to insult them this way, they’d start their own church.
In the midst of a divided and divisive church, where it looked as though people would never find reconciliation and harmony, Paul wrestles in the Book of Romans with how to remain hopeful.
And the amazing thing is that Paul turns to the very thing people were using to beat him over the head with to find hope. He turns to Scripture. He finds hope, he says, in “the encouragement of Scripture.”
Here is why Scripture is encouraging to Paul: because while those who are criticizing and berating him have proof texts that they can quote – and apparently quite convincing ones – Paul finds in Scripture deeper principles that sustain and encourage him.
When we are studying Scripture, we’ve always got to look beyond the proof texts to the deeper principles. We’ve got to look beyond the proof texts any of us try to use to substantiate our prejudices to the deeper truths and principles of the biblical story.
If we can do that, in every struggle in the life of the church and the world for inclusion, Scripture will be an encouragement.
The Apostle Paul is saying to Christians during a time of discouragement, when it seems as though Christians will never transcend their ethnic identities to accept each other as brothers and sisters, and the Bible is being used to justify exclusion, Paul is urging Christians not to give up Scripture to those who are trying to use it as an instrument of exclusion. Don’t give up the encouragement of Scripture because others misuse it. Look for the deeper principles that will sustain us in our journey.
In our lesson from Romans this morning, Paul refers to two deeper principles that encourage him and give him hope.
One principle is that every insult against any of God’s people is actually an insult against God. We don’t have to be defensive. We don’t have to live out of a posture of hurt. We don’t have to act like victims.
All the times we are tempted to become hurt and defensive, we don’t have to be. God takes upon God’s own self all the insult.
The struggle of the church for inclusion is always an insulting struggle, isn’t it? The idea that Gentiles had to be circumcised and adopt Jewish dietary laws and purity codes before they could be received as disciples of Jesus Christ was an insulting things, as though Gentiles were unclean and impure unless they became Jews.
The church’s struggle for inclusion has always been insulting. The idea that global people had to be come like Europeans in order to be disciples of Christ was insulting.
The idea that women had to do ministry under the authority of men was insulting.
The idea that Latinos and Latinas need to learn English and North American ways to be fully included is insulting.
The idea that gay people need to become straight to be ordained or to celebrate their committed relationships is insulting.
And those who have made these kinds of insulting arguments have always used proof texts from Scripture to justify their prejudices. Always.
But Paul finds a deeper principle in Scripture that encourages him and gives him hope. The principle is that we don’t need to be hurt or defensive because the insult is not against us and those we love. It is against God.
Whenever Scripture is used to defend exclusion and to elevate one group of people over another, there is always a deeper principle to be found that will encourage and instruct those who are working for inclusion and justice.
Don’t abandon Scripture to those with a narrow and limited vision. It is a source of encouragement and hope for those who have a vision of inclusion.
There is another deeper principle that Paul refers to in the lesson from Romans 15 that encourages him in the face of people using Scripture to try to defeat him. It is the principle that God is steadfast. Steadfast – in Greek the word is Hupomone. The NSRV translates it “steadfast” because that is a safe translation, but “steadfast” isn’t a word we use a lot day to day.
Here’s how I think Hupomone ought to be translated. I think it ought to be translated “relentless.” God is relentless. Hupomone, by the way, is a feminine word in Greek.
God is relentless. God is relentless like the women of Scripture. God is relentless like Ruth who would not abandon Naomi, no matter what society and culture and propriety said she ought to do. God is relentless like Rebecca who insisted her son Jacob be blessed even though he was the younger son. God is relentless like the Syro-Phoenician woman who would not let Jesus go until her daughter was healed. God is relentless like the widow of Luke 18 who would not stop knocking on the judge’s door until she got justice.
Paul found encouragement in Scripture because the testimony of Scripture is that God is relentless, and God will not stop until all God’s children are included in God’s family.
Proof texts from Scripture will always be used to substantiate and legitimize our prejudices. But Scripture is our source of encouragement and hope anyway. Scripture reminds us that we are not alone. Scripture keeps us from becoming defensive and reactive.
Every time someone quotes Scripture at us to justify their prejudice, it is an invitation for us to go deeper into the Word…to go deeper to find the God who bears the insults against us and those we love…the God who is relentless.
Scripture reminds us that it is not about us and it is not up to us alone. We can live in peace with others, even those who insult us, because we are a hopeful people. And we are hopeful because we are not alone. We are followers of a God who carries our hurts and a God who is relentless.
One of my favorite stories about Scripture is a story Ted Loder used to tell when he was pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. It is a story about the great theologian Paul Tillich.
There was apparently a fundamentalist student in one of Dr. Tillich’s classes who believed that Tillich did not have high enough regard for Scripture. Every class the student would ask Tillich if he believed the Bible was truly the Word of God. And Tillich would give one of his long and thoughtful answers which the student felt to be evasive.
So one day during class, the student walked up to Dr. Tillich and waved his Bible in front of his face and said, “Dr. Tillich, I demand you tell me. Is this or is this not the Word of God.”
Dr. Tillich answered slowly, “It is the Word of God if, instead of you gripping it, you let it grip you.”
There are deep truths within this book – this collection of stories about an amazing God…stories about God’s presence with those who are insulted by the prejudices and oppressions of this world; stories about God’s stubborn relentlessness. God will not let us go – none of us.
Every time someone quotes this book to us to support their prejudices, let it push us to go deeper, like Paul did.
Let’s let this book grip us. Encourage us. Let’s let no one take way from us the encouragement of Scripture…so that we might have hope.