Committed to Christ. Are you committed? Do you engage in the acts of discipleship that are indicative of someone who is committed to Christ?
During these seven weeks, you are being asked to look at different steps you can take toward a greater commitment to Christ. Last week we began this fall sermon series by asking first if we are committed disciples of Christ. The next six weeks will focus on individual aspects of discipleship. Our commitment to each of these aspects of discipleship depends first and foremost on a commitment to Christ.
Today’s transforming act, an important part of the life of any committed disciple, is the holy habit of hearing, reading, and reflecting on the words of Scripture.
As I have shared honestly with you before … reading – anything, the Bible or otherwise – is not my cup of tea. For whatever reason I have this lack of interest, reading is THE activity that I enjoy the least. But also, as I have shared, I do love reading our holy and sacred texts. Here’s some background on my involvement with reading Scripture.
My first semester at Wesley Seminary, I was travelling back and forth from Washington, DC to southwest Virginia every week. I was working for the campus ministry department at my undergrad alma mater, Ferrum College. My father had bought me the Bible on CD so I could listen to the Scriptures being read in the car; I thought this was going to be a great way to knock out my Old and New Testament reading requirements for class. With a full load of coursework, I was given 400-600 pages to read each week. Any leg-up I could get, I would take!
One Tuesday morning, while I was making the drive from Ferrum to Wesley, I was listening to a chapter from 2nd Kings. That was the assigned reading for the week in my Hebrew Bible class. I don’t know how long I had been listening to the soothing deep voiced reader, who had classical music playing in the background … but at some point on I-81 I found myself waking up as my car swerved across both lanes of the interstate somewhere between Roanoke and Harrisonburg. There was something about the reader’s deep voice and the dramatic music playing in the background that did me in. I turned off the CD, rolled down the windows, blared some upbeat music, and stopped as soon as I could to grab a bite to eat and get a sugary drink. It was the first and last time I listened to the Bible on CD.
As I continued throughout the semester, I found myself struggling to really dive into reading Scripture. I don’t like reading, and I had a lot of reading to do. I had heard or read most of the Biblical stories at some point before, and so to some extent, I found the reading redundant; it was simply an exercise in re-reading stories I had long before known. It wasn’t until the second semester of my Biblical studies classes that my interest and desire for reading the sacred texts really increased. Somewhat unexpectedly, I found a joy in reading the texts, in deciphering the emphasis and meaning of the stories, and in joining with friends and colleagues in dialogue over the text.
What changed my love of reading Scripture? To explain what changed for me, and to offer what I think can make a huge difference in your reading of Scripture, I want to rely on Paul’s letter for Timothy, which we read this morning. James Dunn, a leading British New Testament Scholar, and Professor Emeritus of Divinity at the University of Durham says, “this text, [2 Timothy 3:14-17], is the most explicit biblical statement of what Scripture is for.” It best defines for us the purpose of the Biblical texts in our faithful lives.
In reflecting back on what it was that was getting in the way of my commitment to reading God’s sacred Scripture was that I was reading for the wrong reason. Perhaps you have been reading for the wrong reason too. Let us consider Paul’s explanation of how our reading Scripture might change for the better.
Understand the history of Paul and Timothy. Paul and Timothy were close companions. Timothy was a student and co-missionary who had learned the faith from Paul. Paul defines Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:2-7 as “my true child” and “my son.” The two were very close, so close that Paul also says in 1 Timothy 1:2-7 that he knows Timothy’s extended family, including his grandmother and mother. They were like family themselves.
Dr. Thomas Oden, Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University, says that the relationship between Paul and Timothy gives credit and validation to [Paul’s] teaching. So when Paul begins this passage today in 2 Timothy 3 with the admonition to, “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” Timothy can with confidence trust what Paul is saying. Paul has been Timothy’s spiritual mentor, and so when he says, “knowing from whom you learned it,” while there were others who have helped shaped Timothy’s faith, Paul is speaking in large part of himself.
This opening appeal by Paul calls for Timothy to rely on the tradition of his faith. Timothy is being told to not forget from where he has come. There is a necessity when one wants to be disciple of Christ to know the stories of our faith. For Timothy, the sacred writings to which Paul was referring were not the entire Bible as we have today – Old and New Testaments. For Timothy and Paul, the sacred texts were the Torah, Psalms, and the writings of the Prophets – known today as the Hebrew Scriptures (the language in which they were first written), or what we more often refer to as the Old Testament.
As time would pass, the New Testament scrolls were collected, canonized, and published. Today, our sacred writings not only include the Old Testament stories which Timothy knew and read, but also include the narrative and testimony of Christ.
Paul’s call for Timothy, and for us as disciples today, is to not forget our faith tradition, which is built upon the words of Scripture. Paul continues, for what purpose should we read?
Paul says, “the sacred writings are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” There is a call to read so we may understand the sacrifice and significance of the life and witness of Christ, that because of Christ’s first act, we may have salvation through faith.
But salvation is not the only reason we read the texts. Paul continues, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficiently equipped for every good work.”
Dirk Lange, Associate Professor of Worship at Luther Seminary, says, “for [Martin] Luther, [one of the great reformation theologians,] faithfully continuing what we have learned does not mean quoting Scripture ad infinitum (meaning, for eternity) on any subject or controversy until we’re blue in the face. … The purpose,” he says, “of teaching, reproof, correction, and training, [that is, the purpose of reading Scripture according to Paul,] are not for self-justification … the proper use of Scripture and tradition leads us to ‘every good work.’”
Matthew Henry, a 17th Century Theologian, says in his Complete Commentary on the Bible that “[Scripture] instructs us in that which is true, reproves us for that which is amiss, and directs us in that which is good.”
Combining these thoughts into one, we are instructed not to read the texts so we can simply spit out the stories of our faith. Knowing the stories of the faith, those which many of us have been taught since childhood, is important, but not so we can simply regurgitate the narrative. The purpose of reading scripture is so we may be instructed in a life of faith, which leads to salvation – salvation, which has been given through the love of Christ. Our reading, our focus on the love of Christ, our instruction as to live a life of faith teaches us how to live so that the love of Christ is known in and through our lives.
This focus presents the primary reason for reading Scripture; the primary reason for reading consistently … regularly … daily. We read so that we may know and that our life may reflect the love of God in the world.
God’s Word is a living word. Hebrews 4:12 says, “God’s word is alive and active.” 1 Peter 1:23 says, “You have been born anew … through the living and enduring word of God.” Dr. Thomas Oden, in quoting John Calvin, says, “The Apostle does not enjoin Timothy to defend indiscriminately the doctrine which has been delivered to him, but only that which he knows to be truth.”
The word of God has been given to us so that we can today, in seeking to be more wholly committed to Christ, know that which is right and necessary for salvation, the gift that has been given by God through his Son, Jesus Christ. We must read for ourselves, and know for ourselves of the faith of Christ, and the salvation, which has so freely been offered to us.
So, going back to my earlier questions, what changed my love of reading Scripture? I finally realized that I wasn’t reading the holy text just so I could recite the stories, know the characters, and participate in Biblical conversations that took place at church or at seminary. I started reading Scripture so I could be more self-disciplined and more proficient in my personal knowledge of where the Spirit was calling me to be more faithful in my life – to be more loving, to be more grace-offering, to be more effective in providing Christ’s love in and to the world. I realized that for most of my life I had leaned so heavily on the teachings of my Sunday School teachers, men and women who I still to this day thank for their good work in my life, that I had never internalized and considered for myself what God was speaking to me.
Like Paul teaches, I recalled the teachings of my mentors, knowing from whom I had learned my faith, seeing in them how the Spirit of God had moved, and that drove me to want to feel that same Spirit move afresh in my life.
And that is why we are called to make a deeper commitment to reading God’s Holy Word. We are called to read the Scripture because in God’s covenant with us, God has provided us with a story – our story, the story of our faith – in which we are given all that is necessary for salvation. In this good book, in the text of our faith, we find not only our faith history, but we find who we are meant to be ourselves.
So I call on you today to take a step in your faith and make a commitment toward reading the Bible more devotedly, more frequently, more intentionally, and with more resolve toward understanding God’s word and call on your life, to seek how the Spirit is speaking to you today through the teaching of the Bible.
Is their room to grow in you commitment to reading God’s Word? How can you be more committed to Christ in your practice of reading the Bible?