Sunday, December 12, 2010

Believing Bible stories instead of believing the Bible

My wife and I were talking about the prior post, the "If you won't venture out in the snow to go to church, you don't love Jesus" tweet. She pointed out that this is a perfect example of how Protestants are like Roman Catholics in many ways. We believe Bible stories, i.e. the interpretation someone else has told us in Sunday school or a sermon, instead of what the Bible actually says.

Here is a perfect example. When I threw out the challenge "Show me one place in Scripture where Christians gathered to listen to a sermon", I got back the predictable response of Acts 20: 7-11. The Bible story we are taught to believe is that Acts 20: 7-11 describes an event where Paul preached a really long sermon to people who silently listened and then one guy fell asleep, fell from a window, was revived by Paul even though he seemed dead and then they all went and listened to Paul preaching a sermon even longer. John Gill's commentary even says that they had lots of lamps for the purpose of providing sufficient light for the preacher to read and "administer the ordinance of the supper", as if what was going on was indistinguishable from a traditional church service. Heck, it was likely that Paul was wearing vestments while serving the sacraments from a table with "Do This In Remembrance Of Me" carved in the front! This Bible story makes for a cute sermon illustration and is guaranteed to get a chuckle from the audience.

The reality in the text is completely different. Here is the pertinent text:

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, "Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him." And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. (Act 20:7-11)

So what we have here is Paul, gathering with other Christians in a house and without the benefit of pew or pulpit. First, what is the purpose of the gathering? To listen to Paul deliver a sermon? Nope, they "gathered together to break bread". It was the meal that was the driving factor for gathering. While they were gathered, Paul "talked with them" and after Eutychus was revived we read that Paul "conversed with them a long while", until the morning. If you read that through the lens of Western cultural Christianity and base your understanding of this passage on the Bible story you have heard (and be honest, we have all heard this used in a sermon), what is happening here is that Paul preached from early evening to the next morning. What Scripture teaches us is that Paul talked with the other Christians who were gathered to break bread. Certainly he was leading the conversation but everything about it indicates that this was not a sermon or "preaching", it was a conversation among believers. When you look at what Scripture has to say, it becomes apparent that this event is not a cute story about sermonizing in the early church, it is just the opposite. The church gathered together to break bread in a home and during that time they talked with one another all night. It was a time of close and extended fellowship and a time of mutual edification. It is nothing like the Bible story that tells us we should not complain about long-winded sermons because Paul preached a sermon all night once.

When we replace studying the Scriptures with memorizing Bible stories, we often lose the original intent of what was written. We shouldn't read the Scriptures with an eye toward confirming our traditional Bible stories, we should let the Scriptures speak for themselves even when that makes us uncomfortable and shakes up our understanding of the church and of doctrines.


Unknown said...

Oh, this post makes me giggle.
Have you read the Golden Books version of Paul's "sermon"?
It is so very "cute".

Now, one thing though, I have always thought the rising, breaking bread and eating, was just that they all had breakfast before departing.
Could be wrong, but its still contextual without messing it up.

Ur Man CD said...

Hey Arthur I was with you until you mentioned the Do This In Rememberance Of Me sign at the front. You're not suggesting they didn't have those signs back in the day are you? Come on, how can you call yourself a church and not have one of those signs? Whatever next? You'll be telling me that staying at home if the weather is bad and not making it to the sanctuary is alright as well. Hold on a minute ... (He says reading the entry before)

Thanks for bringing these things up for consideration, they really do stimulate healthy and constructive conversations with people at various stages of accepting traditions in church.

LisaM at ThoseHeadcoverings said...

Wow - really good exposition without being over-technical. Your overall thought is really well made, as well as the minor points truly contained in this Bible story, I think. Thank you for writing.