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People First
May 2, 1999

1 Peter 2:2-10

The current controversy within the United Methodist denomination, focused on but not limited to homosexuality, is primarily a disagreement about the role of the Bible in our faith and practice, and the interpretation of the Bible. What is the authority of the Bible? How do we understand and apply the Bible to us today?

The first question is about the role and the authority of the Bible. I join with those United Methodists who subscribe to the historic, Wesleyan traditional belief in the authority of the Bible.

Therefore, because the Bible is authoritative for us, how we understand and apply the Bible today is a matter of tremendous significance. Because the Bible has authority over us, what about troublesome verses like:

"If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death." Leviticus 20:13

"All who curse father or mother shall be put to death." Leviticus 20:9

"If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death." Leviticus 20:10

"Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? " 1 Corinthians 11:13-15

It is obvious that all Christians use some method by which they decide which verses and passages have more authority than others. Let�s look at some methods of biblical interpretation.

1) "Pick and Choose" is the most popular form of biblical interpretation. Pick out the passages with which we agree and discard the rest. This method assumes the Bible has no inherent authority. Whatever agrees with our biases, prejudices, and what we want to do, is chosen, the rest discarded. Whatever one agrees with has more authority than the Bible. The Pick and Choose method must be rejected by those of us who believe in the authority of the Bible.

2) The "All or Nothing" method assumes that every word is written by God and every word is authoritative. If some passages are questioned, then all the Bible is in question, they say. Such believers, however, are rarely consistent. Do the women wear head coverings? Do they throw stones at their misbehaving children? We must reject the All or Nothing method which accepts everything in the Bible with equal authority.

3) The "Filter" method. God did not write the words of the Bible. God inspired human beings to write down what God inspired them to write. God did not suspend the humanness of each author. The Bible is the Word of God communicated through the language and culture of humans. In other words, what they wrote comes through their filter of the cultural and religious beliefs and practices of their day. In order to understand the author�s filter, we must ask questions of each passage and book: When was it written? Who wrote it? What was going on at the time? Why was it written? To what situation and what people was it written?

The Bible covers a period of about 2,000 years�from Abraham through the early church. There are different cultures reflected in the Bible, from the nomadic Hebrews to the sophisticated Greek culture of the Roman Empire. There are many filters to work through. Many of the troublesome passages can be attributed to cultural filters, and therefore do not have authority over us.

4) The "People First" method. When deciding what is authoritative and what is not, there is still the question of what criteria do we use? Our own ideas, our own cultural bias, modern science? I have been working on this sermon for several months, and I believe I have come to a conclusion which I hope will be helpful for the church. As Christians who follow Jesus as Lord, who recognize Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of our faith (as read in the lesson today), we attempt to understand and look through Jesus� filter. Jesus Christ is our ultimate authority, and Jesus put PEOPLE FIRST.

In fact, Jesus reinterpreted Scripture, and even changed Scripture. He was not bound by the traditional interpretations. Matthew 5:38, Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, �An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.� But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer." There are those in our day who still quote Leviticus, and ignore how Jesus went beyond the old Leviticus law and proclaimed love. Matthew 5:43, "You have heard that it was said, �You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.� But I say to you, Love your enemies."

Also, Jesus defied the legalists and their literal, strict interpretations of Scripture. Jesus flagrantly disobeyed laws and violated tradition, much to the consternation of the legalistic Pharisees. The criterion Jesus used was that he put people first. The needs, hurts and pain of people were

more important than laws. When his disciples were hungry and picked grain on the Sabbath, violating strict Sabbath laws, the Pharisees were livid. Jesus replied, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath." (Mark 2:26) Do you hear the principle, how Jesus interpreted Scripture? People are first.

When Jesus healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were again livid and immediately conspired with the Herodians against Jesus. Jesus said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4) People first! Saving life is more important than observing the sabbath.

When the Pharisees questioned him about divorce, Jesus changed Scripture. He overruled Moses! The Mosaic law allowed a husband to divorce his wife simply by giving her a certificate saying they were divorced. Jesus opposed this easy divorce law (of course, the wife did not have the same freedom), and declared, "What God has joined together, let no one separate." (Mark 10:9)

When the woman was caught in the act of adultery, the law of Moses commanded that she be stoned. Jesus undermined the authority of the law by turning it back on the accusers. "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." (John 8:7)

In the current controversy over homosexuality, there are many United Methodist Pharisees who are quite passionate about the few Bible verses that condemns homosexuality. They are also quite passionate about our denomination�s stance which accepts homosexuals as "individuals of sacred worth" but condemns "the practice of homosexuality." The official position of our denomination--"fidelity in marriage, and celibacy in singleness"-- is cruel. Our denomination does not allow "holy unions" so gays are forever single by definition, and therefore are commanded to be celibate. It�s easy for married heterosexuals to condemn gays to celibacy. Easy and cruel.

United Methodist Pharisee legalists are quite passionate about their beliefs, but are either ignorant of or do not care how their beliefs affect other people, how people are hurt by their beliefs. Jesus was impatient with the Pharisees of his day. Jesus cared about the man with the withered hand, and healed him, even though it meant violating the sabbath laws. Jesus cared more about the need of his disciples to eat than he cared about the sabbath law. Jesus cared more about the rights of women who could be divorced easily, than he cared about the sanctity of the holy Mosaic scriptural law! Jesus put people first.

What Christians today must do is refrain from any attitude that feeds the frenzy of hatred that is permeating and destroying our American way of life where tolerance has been a virtue. The hatred that prompted the Littleton tragedy must be turned into tolerance and love. As a

society, we must put people first.

I suggest to you that, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the criterion by which we decide what in the Bible is authoritative for us, and what in the United Methodist Book of Discipline is authoritative for us, is that we, following Jesus, put people first.

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© 1999 Douglas I. Norris