I have a confession to make. I don’t like most of the Bible. I realize this is an unusual thing for an ordained minister to say, but it’s the truth.
It is also true that I am deeply moved by the Gospel of Mark and by the real letters of St. Paul, which biblical scholars have concluded are seven of the 13 ones that appear in the Bible.
In these two sources — Mark and the real Paul — I find stories and words that sketch a path of death and resurrection; and this is a path I try to follow. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the New and Old Testaments leaves me cold.
When I took a course in the Old Testament at the United Church’s Emmanuel College in Toronto, I appreciated the first four chapters of Genesis. But I was appalled by almost everything that followed them. To me, they were tedious tales about the tribal god Jehovah who acts in ways that are often xenophobic and murderous. I was also turned off by all the contradictions in the texts.
When I suggested to our professor that the church find someone to rewrite the Hebrew myths into a consistent text like one I read in high school about ancient Greek myths, she said “Oh no. When the Hebrew editors compiled these stories 2500 years ago in Babylonian exile, they preserved a library of dissonant texts.”
I loved her answer. But this doesn’t do away with my belief that many of these stories – about the first fathers of Israel, about the Exodus from Egypt, and about Hebrew kings — should be discarded and never told to impressionable children. For me, they are either irrelevant or are slanders of God; and while they make up part of the religious background of Jesus, Mark, and Paul, I don’t rely on them.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday in which we hear a story about Jesus transfigured on a mountain from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. These three stories are nearly identical, which means that at least here Luke and Matthew faithfully copied the original story in Mark. But today I chose not to hear the version written by Luke, even though this is the year of Luke in the Lectionary. Luke’s version contains small changes from the original story in Mark, and they do not enhance it, in my opinion.
I wish our Bibles would drop Matthew and Luke when they copy Mark. I wish they only included the material from Matthew and Luke not found in Mark. The latter would include Matthew and Luke’s contradictory Christmas stories, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, and parables like Luke’s one about The Prodigal Son.
In the first Easter Sunday sermon I offered here, I discussed this idea based on Matthew’s copy of Mark’s Good Friday story. Matthew follows Mark more faithfully than Luke does. But he adds some bits that I find both silly and ridiculous.
After the death of Jesus, Matthew continues: “the earth shook; the tombs opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. Coming out of the tombs after his resurrection, they walked into the holy city and appeared to many.” This was the world’s first zombie story, I suggested.
I made this same point on Facebook this month. I have been following the United Church of Canada’s Moderator’s posts on Facebook, which are guiding us through the entire New Testament this winter and which Rob McPhee has promoted in “What’s the Buzz.” When Matthew 27 showed up on February 7, I made a comment about zombies and how I wished our churches would drop Matthew and Luke. But I was disappointed that my comment didn’t generate any discussion.
Something similar holds for The Transfiguration. A minister in Calgary whom I know from seminary posted on Twitter this month that he was bored with the Transfiguration. So, I shared with him my Transfiguration sermon from last February, which disputes the common interpretation of it. But once again, I got no reaction from him or others.
Almost everyone in the church says the Transfiguration shows that Jesus’ path fulfills the Law, represented by the stories of Moses in the book Exodus, and the Prophets, represented by the stories of Elijah from the book First Kings.
In Exodus, Jehovah murders thousands of Egyptians and thousands of the Hebrew slaves who have fled Egypt. In First Kings, Elijah murders 400 priests of Baal. But unlike Jehovah, Moses, and Elijah, Jesus does not murder anyone.
If the gospels said that after Jesus debated with the Pharisees he murdered them, I would not have rejoined the church. Happily, they say no such thing, which is why I am confident the best way to interpret the fanciful and dream-like story of the Transfiguration is about how the path of Jesus is opposite to the ones followed by Moses and Elijah.
After the Transfiguration, Jesus leaves the mountain to journey to Jerusalem where he is betrayed, arrested, and killed. Mark also says that he is raised to new life in Galilee; but unlike Matthew, Luke, and John, Mark contains no resurrection appearances. This absence allows me to better appreciate the stance of Paul in which death and resurrection are metaphors for enlightenment. This is found most clearly in Galatians where Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:19-20).
In seminary when I raised this point, people countered with Paul’s words about death and resurrection in First Corinthians 15, part of which we heard last week in the service led by David Faber. I quite liked David’s service; and as the Lectionary recommends, it included some verses from the end of that chapter, ones that distinguished between the physical and the spiritual body.
Near the beginning of the chapter, Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile, and we are still in our sins. Those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
But for me, the most telling part of the 15th chapter is a passage that is never heard in churches that follow the Lectionary. This is verse 31, which reads “I die every day!” Paul makes plain here that just as his words about crucifixion and resurrection in Galatians are metaphors, so are his words about death and resurrection in First Corinthians 15. Indeed, everything in the Bible should be viewed as metaphor or a retold dream, in my opinion.
For me, a key question is this: do the concepts of death and resurrection help to dissolve our egos; or do they cause us to imagine the ego inflated to monstrous size after death. When crucifixion is seen as a metaphor for the painful vicissitudes of life, and resurrection as the Risen Christ arising in the place of our egos, they describe the path I try to follow. But when crucifixion is seen as the death of an individuated organism like my body or yours and resurrection as something that occurs in a heaven or hell in which our egos are magically sustained for all of eternity, a diametrically opposed path is sketched. The latter is an illusion, I think, while the former is a surprising but wondrous reality.
When I rejoined the United Church of Canada 20 years ago, I was hopeful that illusions were being shattered in it. For one, we were turning our backs on imperialism by repenting our role in running Indian Residential Schools.
But the denomination did not extend this anti-colonial program to the texts of the Bible themselves. In 2012, the year after I was ordained, General Council passed a resolution stating that its statements of faith were subordinate to Holy Scripture.
Unfortunately, this resolution ignores that the Bible came from the ancient world through war, conquest, and genocide.
Earlier this month, Kim and I watched a movie that tells of the church’s first genocide at the end of the Fourth Century. The movie, “Agora” from 2009, stars Rachel Weisz as the Alexandrian Greek philosopher Hypatia and Oscar Isaac as her student. The movie also shows the world-historic library in Alexandria being destroyed by Saint Cyril, who was the city’s Patriarch. This action by Cyril and a Christian mob was repeated throughout the Roman World in what stands as one of the greatest cultural genocides of all time.
Unfortunately, churches seem unable to fully relate to its crimes, which have occurred from its foundation as the religion of the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century to today when Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church in Russia support every move of Vladimir Putin’s regime, including his attempt to reabsorb Ukraine and so reunite the Orthodox faith under Russian imperial power.
It is likely that the next minister of Mill Woods United Church will not hold views of the books of the Bible as critical as mine, and I am resigned to that eventuality. I have tried to accept the inability of United Church clergy to either confront the church’s own sordid history or to absorb the reality of the denomination’s decline in a way that might inspire us; and there are much bigger problems in the world for us to focus on than the inability of clergy to confront illusions in either biblical texts or in the size of their denominations.
Nevertheless, confronting illusion and rising closer to reality have been integral to my work as an ordained minister. I undertake this work not to bum myself out or those who listen, but to accept the moment in its fullness. There is much to love in this process, particularly times when we die to old ways of life and rise closer to the source of Love we call God. But there is much in the moment to dislike, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the work of so many other fascist leaders around the world who use Catholic, Evangelical, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu religious leaders as props.
I love much of what is found in the world’s spiritual paths, including the tradition I rejoined more than 20 years ago in the Christian Church, just as I find much in them that is illusory, violent, and inimical to human flourishing.
As people drawn by the Love we call God, I pray we will confront illusions in our scriptures, traditions, and communities, illusions that lead us away from beauty, truth, and love. May this process allow us to rise ever-closer to reality.
On this path, the losses might feel as painful as crucifixion. But they can also remind us that we are beloved children of God who can find the freedom, community, and fearless love we need to flourish in broken lives of beauty, joy, and hope.
May it be so. Amen.