The Road that Leads Through the Bible
by Rodney Romney
Rodney Romney is Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church, Seattle, Washington. The following is a transcript of a speech delivered at the 1998 National Forum of the Center for Progressive Christianity. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at www.tcpc.org.
I am honored to have been asked to lead the Bible study at this gathering, although it is not without some trepidation I accepted. I am well aware there are many here who could do this equally well or better than I. l: also know there are some who would say that asking Romney to lead a Bible study is a bit risky, since he often interprets it to suit himself or will rewrite it if necessary. Actually, I don't know anyone, fundamentalist or liberal, who doesn't do that. We all have our own interpretations. We also have our favorite passages, and if we are honest we will admit that even though the Bible is the most important book of our faith, much of it is dull and irrelevant to this century.
Baptists believe that every person has the right to interpret scripture for himself or herself, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, many Baptists today are dismantling some of our historic principles. It began to happen a few years ago when a fundamentalist majority in the Southern Baptist Convention took control and insisted upon the inerrancy of the scriptures. By their interpretation of scripture, women cannot be pastors, and professors who do not ascribe to scriptural inerrancy cannot teach in seminaries. Homosexuality and abortion have risen to the top as major sins. Southern Baptists split, with about 2000 churches pulling away to form another group, called Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Concurrent with this rift among Southern Baptists has come the beginning of one among American Baptists. A fundamentalist group called American Baptist Evangelicals has as its agenda getting rid of all the thirty churches that are Welcoming and Affirming, meaning those who accept gays and lesbians into the pews and pulpits of their churches. They have succeeded in disfellowshiping one church in Ohio and four in Northern California and have recently sought to get rid of the two in Seattle--University Baptist and Seattle First Baptist. At a regional meeting in Spokane two weeks ago this effort failed because it did not have a two-thirds majority. They expect to try again at the next regional biannual meeting and could likely succeed.
So if I appear this morning a bit bruised or aggressive, it's probably because I am. My mother always told me not to go to places where I was not invited. I do not wish to give up the denomination that I chose as my own when I was 15 years old, but if the churches in this region eventually decide they don't want me or my church, l suspect we can live and thrive without them.
What does this have to do with the Bible? Everything. Fundamentalists believe they are acting in the name of biblical authority. That's why the Center for Progressive Christianity has appeared on my horizon at such a propitious moment. I am grateful to be in a safe place where I can speak from my heart and not worry about being stoned or "dissed," as common parlance suggests.
l have been in search for meaning ever since I realized nearly thirty years ago that the only brand of certainty l could accept had to emerge from me and not from some ecclesiastical edict. My journey led me back to the message of the real Jesus, which I think is too radical and challenging for a lot of Christians to embrace. It made me redefine scripture as a means of supporting human rights and freedoms rather than as an excuse for denying them, as fundamentals have done.
Rather than spending time today on a particular lesson from one passage in the Bible, I would like us to follow the theme of this conference, "On the Road," and look at a road that runs throughout the entire Bible. I believe this road, if followed faithfully, will lead to the heart of a living, loving God, who in turn leads us into the hearts of all people and all creation. While we may start our journey on that road as a member of a particular religion or denomination, in the end our destiny is to be universalists in the same way God is.
I am indebted to a number of writers and thinkers, with particular gratitude to Bishop John Spong for rescuing the Bible from fundamentalism, to Bruce Bawer for stealing Jesus back from the fundamentalists, and to a significant number of women theologians who have rescued the Bible from a purely male interpretation. As for early influences, probably no one has directed my thinking more than Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister who was born in 1861 in upstate New York, and whose emphasis on the social gospel and the church of Love rather than the Church of Law spoke to me in seminary in a way that changed my thinking forever.
If we get to the end of the Bible and still think we can get away with rejecting and excluding anyone, we have taken a wrong turn somewhere on that road. When we close the Bible we are left with an all-loving God who longs to welcome all people, whatever race, gender or orientation, a God to whom everyone is precious and who has placed in every life a sacred and unbeatable purpose.
We must remember we don't know much about how the Bible came to be written, but most scholars believe that almost nothing was written until years after the events had taken place. It is believed that during the early years of the reign of Solomon in Jerusalem (960-920 B.C.E.) an unknown person took pen in hand and began to write the story of how a Jewish nation came into being. This writer began his story by describing a road that leads out of a mythical place called the Garden of Eden when the residents of that garden are banished from their idyllic paradise because they knew too much. "God said, 'Behold, they (Adam and Eve) have become like one of us, knowing good and evil, and now, lest they put forth their hands and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever'--therefore God sent them forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which they were taken." (Genesis 3:22-23)
The road led Adam and Eve from a fairy tale existence into the world of real life, where they had to toil hard just to exist, watch one of their sons murder his brother, and experience the terrible pain of what it means to be human. "At that time humans began to call upon the name of God." (Genesis 4:26) Real life had taught them they could not make it on their own.
The next place we pick up the road is from a place called Ur of the Chaldees where a man and woman named Abraham and Sarah were called to journey to a foreign land and there to build a great nation. The patriarchs, or ancestral fathers of Israel, moved about in the hill country of Canaan, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob succeeding one another. Eventually, during a time of famine, Jacob's family migrated to Egypt. There, after enjoying initial favor, they were subjected to forced labor by the Egyptian pharaoh.
Now the road comes to a halt for a time. But under the leadership of Moses (about 1300 B.C.E.) They escaped into the desert, where they were forged into a community with a single religious alliance. The road that they followed out of Egypt, through the wilderness and back into Canaan, a land which they claimed as their own under the leadership of Joshua, was a road of almost ceaseless warfare. But finally Canaan became an Israelite empire, ruled first by Saul, then David and then Solomon.
Upon the death of Solomon the road split when the empire divided into two kingdoms. This was the beginning of another disaster, as the kingdoms were drawn into the power struggles of the Near East. The Northern Kingdom fell under the aggression of Assyria (721 B.C.E.) And the Southern Kingdom fell victim to the Babylonians, who wrested the world rule from the Assyrians. In 587 Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the people were carried away into captivity. But under the benevolent rule of Persia, the exiles were finally permitted to return to their homeland where they rebuilt Jerusalem and resumed their way of life. They were now back on the road that their ancestors had taken many years before.
Yet the road was still not a peaceful one. Palestine, as the country was then known, was more than two centuries under Persian rule, then fell under Greek control, at which point the Hebrew scriptures break off. There was a brief period of Jewish independence, but shortly it was eclipsed by Rome, the next world empire.
From a secular viewpoint the history of Israel is no more unusual or courageous than the story of other nations in the ancient East. But this road we have been following does not purport to be simply a road leading through a secular history or culture. This is a road that offers a disclosure of God's activity in the midst of the events that take place. God is somehow working out a divine purpose in the career of the nation Israel. For this reason, the road is of great significance to all of us, for it is a road that tells us what God has done, is doing, and will do, not only for one nation, but for all nations and for each of us individually.
The exodus from Egypt was the decisive event, the great watershed of Israel's history. Today Jewish people understand their vocation and destiny in the light of this revealing event which made them a people and became their undying memory. The prophets that spoke before, during and after the exile, were voices that reminded the people that they were still on a road designed by God, described so eloquently by the prophet Isaiah: "God makes smooth the road of the righteous. In the path of your judgments, O God, we wait for you." (Is. 26:8)
Isaiah described the future of Israel as a highway that would be called the Holy Way (Isaiah 35:8ff.) "No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come upon it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return with singing and everlasting joy."
While the prophet was talking of a future after the exile, the words took on a timeless meaning of a peaceable kingdom when all the nations would follow the road that led to the mountain of God, where the creation would dwell in peace.
Now comes the decisive event for the Christian. It was in the period of Roman oppression that a child named Jesus was born to a poor Jewish couple, and the road, which had been buried by layers of war and oppression, was uncovered again. For a very short time, no more than three years, the road was defined by the journey and the teachings of this Jesus who grew up to be an itinerant evangelist and preacher. His message was a direct affront to the religionists of his time, for he spoke simply of God being available to everyone and of demanding only one thing, that people love God and one another as God loves them.
Jesus' message was enough of a threat to the religious and political establishments that it was decided to silence him. The road that he had followed through the winding hills and valleys of Galilee now led up a hill outside the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus was put to death on a cross.
Marcus Borg, whose writings on Jesus have been helpful to me, says that Jesus was not simply a victim. He was killed because he sought, in the name and power of the Spirit, to transform his culture. He issued a call for a relationship with God that would lead to a new political system. For this he gave his life, even though death was not his primary intention. It was his call to change culture and uplift human life, says Borg, that caused his death.
Does the road stop at the cross? I think this is the question that we struggle with today. Today researchers Biblical scholars, theologians and lay people are arguing over who Jesus was and what his agenda was. The popular image of Jesus was that he was the Holy Son of God (identity) who came to die for the sins of the world (purpose) and to proclaim himself as the Messiah or Savior (mission). But if you take a more historical approach to his life, as have numerous writers today, that image disappears.
The new image that emerges is that Jesus' message was not about himself; he did not come to die for our sins, nor did he try to get people to believe in him. His message was primarily about God, not himself, and his purpose was to address a crisis in first-century Judaism and to steer religion back onto the road that would lead to peace, justice and freedom for all the nations of the earth.
Jesus was deeply committed to the marginalized and disenfranchised people of his society. This, to me, is the most compelling piece of evidence we have about his life. The strongest indictment brought against him by the religious leaders was that he ate with publicans and sinners. He touched the wrong people, associated with those who were ritualistically unclean, and crossed all the boundaries of exclusion that the religious system of his time had set up. He took to heart the ancient commandment of his faith, that the stranger was to be embraced and welcomed into fellowship, that no one was to be left out or excluded in any way or at any time. For Jesus, religion was hollow if it did not welcome and embrace the stranger, as commanded by his own Jewish faith.
The road that leads through the Bible, in my opinion, must lead to that same conclusion, and where it fails to do that, it fails to show the will of God. To me the current issue of whether gays and lesbians should be welcomed into the church is non-debatable. Of course they should! The Bible teaches that God loves the world and all its people; the most serious offense we can commit is to turn our backs on any one of God's children.
That's why Jesus and the gospel were so radical. They cut through the social, political and economic systems that existed and which were oppressive and demanded that those who were to be followers on the road must live in a totally different way. The emphasis of Jesus upon inclusion and egalitarianism threatened the politics of holy separation. His consciousness collided with the consciousness of his day. The church came into being not just for the purpose of worship, teaching or fellowship. The church came into being to transform the world and all its systems.
The cross, therefore, invites us to participate not only in our own salvation but in the salvation of all creation. It symbolizes a turning point in the road of spiritual journey, which began so many thousands of yeas ago but which has led us to this present time in history. The debate over who's in and who's out, who's right and who's wrong, was settled long ago. We don't need to be fighting that any longer. We're all in and in a true sense, we're all right, given our life situation.
John Dominic Crossan reminds us that Jesus did not say, "I bring the kingdom." Rather he said it is already here. No one has a monopoly on it, not even Jesus. He announced that it is permanently available to anyone and everyone, everywhere and anytime. This, says Crossan, means that Jesus is announcing that the kingdom is unbrokered. "You don't need the religious establishment; you don't even need me. The kingdom is in your midst (within you)."
Jacob Needleman in his book "Lost Christianity," suggests that perhaps the part of Christianity which has been lost is a view of an absolutely equitable world. Perhaps this is why we debate and fight over who is in and who is not. What Jesus claimed seems totally implausible, so we alter it to suit our own demands.
In all the arguments for Biblical authority that I have heard lately, I do not recall hearing one reference to the Sermon on the Mount. Rather the texts come from the Holiness Code in the Hebrew scriptures or from some of Paul's letters to the early Christians. Did Paul derail the movement? Did he create a side road that led away from the main purpose and emphasis of Jesus?
The truth is we have a Gospel according to Jesus and a Gospel according to Paul. The attitudes that shaped Paul's writing have long ago been abandoned; whereas the attitudes that characterized the teachings of Jesus seem to be timeless. Paul cannot be taken literally. He did not write the Word of God; he wrote the words of Paul.
Several scholars believe Paul was a rigidly controlled, repressed gay man who felt tremendous guilt, shame and self-loathing. His religious tradition would clearly regard gay males as evil and depraved. If he was gay, he lived under a death sentence, for by the Law of his day he stood condemned. Yet, as Bishop Spong points out, if it was a gay male who taught the Christian church what the love of God means, who defined grace for all people; and who, tortured and rejected as he must have felt, came to understand what resurrection means as God's vindicating act, then in a sense we do owe him a debt of gratitude. It's just too bad it has taken him 2000 years to "come out."
I know some people would think it scandalous to even suggest such a thing, but is that not how the God of the Bible seems to work? Perhaps Paul did create a fork in the road which took the church off in a direction slightly askew to the direction Jesus had intended. He was not the only one who did that. Augustine certainly assisted in creating a side road with his doctrine of original sin, as have many theologians, scholars and preachers of the past. There is no point in blaming anyone. The call is to get back on the road which God has prepared and to continue our journey in the direction of freedom, love and justice for everyone.
Howard Thurman talked about the failure of the church to be a home for all people, because it has always been on the side of the strong and powerful and against the weak and oppressed. This, despite the fact that Jesus was born to poor Jewish parents, a minority group under Roman rule. Thurman was convinced that Christians have not correctly understood nor faithfully followed the church's central figure, Jesus.
Churches and denominations, said Thurman, were established out of an ethos of exclusion: excluding those who do not believe specific dogma and excluding those who believe the accepted dogma but are of a particular socio-economic status or orientation.
As long as the church operates on the principle of exclusion, it forfeits the opportunity to be the trustee of an experience that takes us to God. The essence of God is love, but the excluding nature of many churches is antithetical to the nature of God. If the church is to be the Church, then it must honor the tradition of universalism. God is always searching for a witness through which that principle can find expression.
As we close this study of the road that runs through the Bible, I want to call your attention to this statement from Jesus, "I am the Way (Road), the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except by me." (John 14:7)
I think no single statement in the Bible has caused such discussion and controversy as this statement that Jesus gave to Thomas. The common assumption by most Christians is that Jesus was here making a defense of his own unique position in the scheme of salvation, and was saying that literally no one can come to God except through him. This may be good news to the Christian, but it is scant comfort for the Jew, the Moslem, the Hindu, or anyone else who does not accept the unique position of Jesus Christ in relation to God.
I am a Christian, although perhaps an unconventional one. I believe the life of Jesus offers me a way to live and to serve God, and I am trying as best I know to follow him. But Jesus never wanted to be worshiped. He wanted people to find the same truth he had found, and he held out to them a way by which they might do that. To Jesus, God was not just an object of worship, but a Presence dwelling in us, a force surrounding us, a Principle by which we live. Anyone who catches this concept will be caught up in a new consciousness that will change life. He or she will never be the same again.
Perhaps what Jesus meant was that no one can come to this concept of God within you as your heavenly parent except through the way of consciousness that he had shown. Perhaps what he was really saying was this: "You are your own way to God." Only you can open your heart to God. The road to God is found by carefully attending to the way within, by attending to those moments when a new feeling breaks through or a new idea emerges. Each of us is our own way. The Buddhists say to trust the wisdom that rises up within you. It is another way of saying, you are your way.
I believe God wants to say to us today, "Bill, Mary, Jim, Helen, I want you to trust your deepest intuitions. You are not alone and you never will be. You have not lost your way. You are your way."
The church is at another crossroads today. Mainline denominations are losing statistically and numerically. Yet spiritual hunger has never been greater. The road that has led from the cross of Christ has suffered many detours and reroutings over the last two thousand years, but it has never truly been lost. Always there have been those faithful folk who caught the vision of a gospel that offered good news to all people and who have followed it steadily and earnestly. Often in the minority and sometimes persecuted, they have nevertheless persevered in keeping alive the truth of God's all-embracing, universal love. Dare we believe that we who are here today are part of that minority movement, and that God is calling us to transform history with the same message of inclusive and universal love that built the road in the beginning?