Some thoughts regarding “The Word of God”

At its most basic level, a word is a symbol used to express and idea, and perhaps to communicate that idea from one being or group to another.

When we think about God as represented in the Bible, we see a God who speaks to express ideas and who seeks to communicate. Genesis tells us that through speech (presumably of words) creation experienced order, distinction and categorization arising out of chaos. Thus we learn that words, or at least the words (Word?) of God has the power potentiality to create. “God said, “Let there be…” and it was so…and God saw and said, “It is good” (Genesis 1). God then turns the divine word toward relationship with humanity by offering the blessing of orientation, direction, counsel and boundaries that would constitute the divine/human relation. “Do this… don’t do that” (Genesis 2). Words are next used to disorient and deceive, and then to rebuke, correct, and warn (Genesis 3). From just the first three chapters of the bible, we learn that words are spiritual, powerful, and that they shape life.

With the second call of Abram/Abraham (Exodus 15) we encounter the phrase “the word of the LORD”. The all caps “LORD” is a place holder for the tetragrammaton “YHWY” which is the unpronounceable name of God derived from the encounter with Moses on Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:14). This word of the LORD comes to people, as an almost physical presence of God in speech – see the encounter of the boy prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 3.

Through the call, the word/speech of God continued to create/form a unique people (Isaiah 42:6). The calling/creating word/speech beaconed Israel back from captivity and restored them as a nation in Jerusalem and Judea. The word came and spoke through the prophets. The word had always been known by the Hebrew people as active in the world, and among them speaking and calling and creating.

Then, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The New Testament theologians understood that through this same word-made-flesh all creation came into being and continues to exist (1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2, 2:10). They recognized in the Incarnate One the same creating word which they believed was spoken (and spoken of) in Genesis. In the Hebrew Scriptures “the word of the LORD” is most commonly the direct communication from God to a prophet, priest or king. Similarly, we also encounter “the angel of the LORD” as a reference to God’s direct communication.

That mode changes in the New Testament, as Jesus himself comes to us as God’s Spoken Word – God’s direct communication to the world. “The Word of God” is a New Testament theme – the phrase only appears 3 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and once in the Apocrypha. In the writings of Paul and the other epistles “word of God” most often refers to the proclamation of the message about Jesus (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:36; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12; 1 John 2:14). The notable exception is Romans 9:6 where Paul is discussing the unfolding message of salvation to the Jews throughout their history.

The phrase “word of God” as used by Jesus in the Gospels refers to God’s communication to Israel as witnessed in the faith and testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures – specifically “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). When the same phrase is used by Luke in telling the story of the early church in The Acts of the Apostles, it refers to the testimony about Jesus (e.g. Acts 4:31; Acts 6:2). Here in Acts, as in the epistles, the proclamation of “the word of God” results in creative action – i.e. people become believers in / followers of Jesus and the Church, the Body of Christ, increases. Thus the notion of the Word of God being a creative force continues. Finally, in Revelation the usage shifts again, back to the more broadly understood message of God to the world through the Jews, where we encounter the new phrase “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:2; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 6:9; Revelation 19:13; Revelation 20:4).

Nowhere is the “word of God” a fixed or static thing. As Hebrews 4:12 says, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” At the time of Jesus there was strong debate among the Jewish leaders over what constituted authoritative scripture and how to interpret them. This is the essence of the conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Sadducees apparently denied the resurrection (Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27) and possibly the existence of angels – Acts 23:8 lists these distinctions: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.” The Pharisees also held an oral tradition of interpretation that is called “The tradition of the Elders”. An example of this discussion is found in Mark 7

1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles. ) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother’; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God )— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Here Jesus enters a discussion of the relationship between the Mosaic Law, the tradition, and the practice of his contemporaries. Clearly there were multiple understandings of “the word of God”, and only Jesus, the “Word of God made flesh”, was able to bring clarity.

What to make of all of this? I want to stress several points:

  1. The “Word of God” and the “Spirit of God” are intertwined, though distinct. We see this in the bible’s first story of creation – the Spirit moving and the Word spoken.
  2. God’s communication with us is creative – this is the active result of the work of the Word of God proceeding forth.
  3. God’s communication with us is ongoing, not closed or static. God spoke, is speaking, and will speak the world and the church into existence and into relationship through love.
  4. We are participants in this loving, creative, sustaining work. We are being made new. And because the Word is in us and we in Him, we are co-laborers with God in creating, redeeming and sustaining the world – the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus tells his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes (Who was also at the beginning of creation, moving over the waters of chaos) the Spirit will teach the church (Luke 12:12; John 14:26) which is similar to what is said in Psalm 143:10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.” The church taught that we abide in Jesus, and he in us, and that together we abide in God (John 15) “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.” (1 John 2:27)

Lastly, the writer of Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah the promise that eventually the communication of God with humanity would shift modes yet again, so that we would no longer be in need of an external teacher and interpreter, because the Law/Word would dwell in us.

10 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8)

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31)

We have not reached this place, but we are on our way. This is the goal of all spiritual formation and growth, until we come to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

A brief statement of faith.

God’s love for the world is revealed in the creating, redeeming, reconciling and sustaining work known in Jesus the Christ, who is Son of God, Savior and Lord. Through the Bible we receive a witness to the faith of the early church and the people of Israel from within whom the church was born as joint heirs through sharing in that same faith demonstrated by Abraham and Sarah, the parents of the Hebrew people. Through that faith they to set out on a journey to a promised future through which blessings would come – the blessing to be a blessing to others. The Holy Spirit which inspired and empowered the people of God, the incarnational ministry of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, and the birth of the church, continues to work in diverse ways to manifest God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven until the kingdom of heaven comes to earth. The church functions as a continuation of that incarnation initiated in Jesus as we work and worship, speak and serve in his name as he has taught us. We agree that we are called to follow Jesus and that we are one in him, even if we arrive at different conclusions regarding what it means for us to follow him. Through it all, we trust and pray that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 108) and that God’s grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Becoming Church –Building on the foundation

Sermon Notes for 06102012 – Zechariah 8:1-23

Luke 6: 46 “Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.

Hebrews 5: You need milk, not solid food; 13 for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. 6: 1 Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, 2 instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

Jesus says that coming to him, hearing him, and obeying him is how we lay a foundation.

    These we might call the basic teaching of Christ.

There is also according to the author of Hebrews another kind of foundation

    Basic teaching about Christ

I would suggest we think of these not as two different foundations, but as the slab and reinforcing, the wall and the footer, the pier and beam, of the foundation. One is the basic foundation, while the other strengthens, supports and reinforces.

  • A footing without a perimeter wall is not a foundation, it’s just rock buried under ground.
  • A perimeter wall without a footing can support a building, but not well, and not through all the changes that the building and its environment will experience.
  • The better the reinforcing, the better the foundation can do its job, which is to support the building in good times and in bad.

The writers of Luke, Hebrews and Zechariah are clear that the foundation is based in a way of understanding and relating to God, and living that relationship out in the world. All three authors describe essentially the same kind of life.

And they also seem clear that building on that foundation is in part about continuing to return to those founding principles.

Around here, most house foundations are slab on grade, with a perimeter wall and active reinforcement. Even some of those have problems. Certainly many older foundations that are simply a slab, without perimeter wall or reinforcement will get severe cracks because of shifting soils. We can water the foundation and try to minimize the shifting, but ultimately we can not prevent it. So if the foundation gets problems, then we have to call in another kind of expert, one who repairs the foundation – providing it the kind of support it lacked from the beginning.

That is an interesting process, and one which some of you have experienced firsthand at your own homes. As I understand it, the problem often shows itself first in clear but small ways – doors stick, sheetrock separates at corners, perhaps a tile floor cracks. Next there may be a crack in the brick exterior wall. Finally a water or gas leak in or under the foundation will reveal itself. By then the problem is often extensive.

So at some point along this path you realize there is a problem. But not many of us in this room are qualified to fully diagnose such things, much less have the knowledge or skill to repair them, so we call in a professional – someone trained in foundation work. This person will run some tests, make some recommendations and give a bid for the work. Once you return to consciousness and get up off the floor, then you have a conversation about the fact that there really isn’t a choice. And the good news is that once this work is done, if the preventive maintenance is continued from that point on, there should not be any more difficulty of this kind.

So this foundation work entails providing a new support structure for the existing foundation, one that goes deep enough that shifting soils will not impact it.

When applied to the church, what this suggests is that:

  1. Problems don’t develop overnight.
  2. The sooner you catch an issue, the easier it is to address
  3. Doing more work up front saves time, effort, head and heart ache later
  4. Weak foundations can be repaired
  5. A strong foundation supports the structure and shelter for a vital and vibrant life

One other critical point arises from these passages – the blessings of a life lived in a house built on a firm foundation. For Luke, the foundation story is a means to understand the beatitudes. Blessed are… Blessed are… Blessed are…

And the woes. Woe to you… Woe to you… Woe to you…

Zechariah paints such a beautiful picture of life in God’s community – it’s a foretaste of the kingdom of God, a foreshadowing of Jesus’ kingdom parables, and a rehearsal for that life foretold by the Hebrew Prophets and by John’s Revelation – A blessed community where God dwells in the midst of God’s people. A place where God’s people live in an abundance that meets every need, for themselves, and for the nations who are drawn to experience God’s bounty. This is who the church is called to be. It is who we are. Yes, life in community as God’s church is difficult. The Way of Jesus is impossible for us on our own – to love our enemies, and call brother and sister those with whom we so strongly disagree on things that to us seem critically important. And yet that is exactly what God asks of us. It is exactly that toward which God calls and empowers us. It is why we are new creatures in Christ. Among the greatest joys in life are those to be found in the church when broken people are made whole, when the dead in spirit find new life, when the obsessed, oppressed, and possessed find freedom and release. When the addict gets clean, when the self-hater discovers self-love, when the narcissist discovers God’s love, when the shamed and guilt-ridden experience forgiveness, when the self-righteous discover grace, when sinners receive mercy, when the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute speak, when the widow and orphan find a home, when the hungry and thirsty are satisfied, when those who walk in darkness see light.

We are the Body of Christ, the blessed continuation of the incarnation of the one anointed to bring Good News. Church, we are Good News, because we are God’s instruments, God’s vessels, God’s holy Temple. Let us live the truth that scripture proclaims over us, that we are blessed to be a blessing.

Notes from Tuesday night’s DDP meeting…5/22 – by SJ

A good vision for FGCC, that we have had around us, but didn’t name and recognize until now, goes something like this :

“FGCC is a part of the body of Christ,
gathered together, growing disciples
from curious onlookers
towards spiritually mature ministers.”

As a foundational part of this vision, we see creating a scope and sequence of growing disciples at FGCC through teaching, preaching, and open discussion inclusive of diverse opinions.   Where scripture speaks we speak, and where scripture is silent we will  prayerfully with love and conversation embrace our diversity together.

This means we support inclusive coverage of scripture (entire OT and entire NT) in sermons in tandem with guided group studies.

Suggested topics for the “back to basics” which is envisioned as the first part of the scope/sequence –  basic faith foundation kinds of topics:  for example, if Ken could take some of the creeds and preach a series on each thing mentioned there – not as a statement of faith for us, but as a guide for a topic list, and we could also in tandem study them in SS.  Also, interpretation of scripture, and an overview of the Bible were mentioned.

After we cover the basic faith foundation topics, moving on to difficult topics is desired as an additional part of scope/sequence. We feel guided, small group discussions/studies done in tandem with the sermons are a necessity (or highly recommended) – We do not want to tiptoe around difficult topics (based in 2 Tim 4:1-5), and we seek a deeper prayer life together.   An authentic, shared prayer life that is spiritually stirring is desired.


Let’s let the topic of spiritual gifts rest for awhile.  The group feels that topic has been covered more fully than other topics in recent memory.
For summer, and perhaps longer, maybe a year? – basic belief sermon series and guided study series
After that – move to advanced topics built on the basic beliefs, inclusive of difficult topics that are pervasive in our culture.
Additional suggestions for next week’s agenda:
Revival in the fall?
CA and CK to continue to work out details of their ideas for hospitality, etc. so we can implement those soon.

Funeral Meditation for Teresa Neifert

(NOTE: Theresa Neifert died Monday morning, 5/14, at 12:55am. I am her pastor. She was and remains a real treasure and will be sorely missed by many of us. You can see her obit and leave messages here. You can read her CaringBridge chronicling her journey with cancer. Her son Joe and husband Jeff did such a nice job speaking about her during the funeral, and her family and friends will be far better at narrating her story, so I’ll leave that to them.)

Some of us are familiar with the notion that this earth is not our home, because we are a spirit trapped in a body, and that God’s ultimate plan is to free our spirits from a bodily form. This is not what either the old or new testaments say. The biblical witness, as we have heard in Revelation and in Paul’s writing, is that God’s consummation of all things will bring us restored bodies in the midst of a new heaven and new earth – we will, in the end, be incarnational beings. Incarnation is the ultimate expression of God’s creation of humanity, not some kind of secondary temporary compromise we are stuck living for a short while. This is why there was a resurrection. Without the centrality of our incarnation, there is no need for Jesus’ bodily resurrection – he could just conquer death as a spirit – no need for the cool resurrected body that is both similar and different from the old body. This tension between our bodily and spiritual experience is none-the-less real, and Paul talks at length about it in numerous places, including:

Philippians 1:
21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.

Paul regularly acknowledges the apparent tension we often feel between our internal and external experiences of the world, and in faith he goes further to identify a tension between desiring to be here among family and friends or in the kingdom of God in eternal bliss. This life is marked by blood, toil, sweat and tears – a phrase first uttered by the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. It can be a hard life, and yet it is also filled with good food, hearty laughter, natural beauty, rapturous physical intimacy, intellectual challenge – in a word, it is beautiful.

La Vita e Bella – Life is Beautiful – Do you remember that film from 1997? Do you remember Roberto Benigni at the Oscars? He practically floated off the stage he was so filled with joy. He seemed to be filled with some kind of energy from some other place – it was infectious – the kind of thing that still makes one smile 15 years later. That is how I think many of us experience our time with Theresa – she seemed to be channeling an energy from somewhere else – it is infectious, beautiful, challenging, hopeful, inspiring. That may be part of what made the last years so difficult for us – to see someone so filled with life and love struggling to stay and continue to be present with us and for us.

People live four different kinds of lives – the interior life of the intellect, the interior life of the emotions, the exterior life of objects, and the exterior life of relationships. My sense of Theresa is that her life was very externally focused, and leaned heavily toward relationships. She worked with her hands in a very tactile and intimate way – to have her wash your hair prior to a cut was to know that someone was praying for you. She loved to be surrounded by family and friends, and loved to feed them – Sunday afternoon meals are legendary.

The fact that she lived her life so much in the body, so much in her relationship with the physical world, may also be part of what made it so difficult to let go. Theresa’s experience of her own life and faith was such that she struggled knowing how to pray once she stopped praying for healing. What does one do? There is a whole terrible and wonderful discussion to be had about coming to terms with that reality – making a conscious decision to turn from prayers for living toward prayers for dying – without feeling like one is giving up or letting others down. I’d like to share part of what I told her last week when she’d come to that place.

Learning to die – Practice in releasing

Learning to die – Looking to the crucified Christ

I’ve only known her these last ten years, and the rest only as she’s told it to me, so most of her life is out of my reach. But I can confidently say several things about her life and faith.

Theresa was generous with her life – to her family, to friends, to clients at the salon, and even to strangers near and far. Many of you were involved in her efforts for the St. Bernard Project after hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans. From all I can tell, that was just the kind of person she was – nothing out of the ordinary, though certainly extraordinary in its effort and impact.

Theresa was vivacious – she was the kind of person other people wanted to be around and couldn’t help but like – because she wanted them around and liked them. Even in the last 48 hours of her life she was surrounded by family and friends and friends of family. She was joking and guiding and challenging and encouraging and teasing and loving. Saturday evening was a scene I’ll never forget, as she and her family drew together to boldly love one another and stare death down, fiercely proclaiming to themselves, each other, and the world that death would not separate or destroy them, that death would not get the victory.

Theresa was devoted – you knew who she loved, and she prioritized those relationships. That probably wasn’t always fun or easy, because if she loved someone she wanted the best for them and would challenge them to be their best, to hang in there, and to make difficult choices and go through tough times to overcome adversity and get to a better life.

Theresa was forgiving, she believed in second chances. How many of you in this room were given a second chance by her – or a third or fourth? Often times we take actions in our lives – we say or do something, make a decision – that we regret, but we think there’s no going back. We can’t unsay or undo those things, but the forgiveness we see in Jesus tells us – Theresa’s own faith and the way she related to us tells us – that we can be reconciled and restored, we can be forgiven, we can get another chance. With God we never run out of second chances. No matter what we’ve done, how many times, or for how long, God is always waiting right beside us to receive us back in love. It may be that the hardest part of all that is that we have trouble forgiving ourselves – I know Theresa did. She was ready to forgive others, but found it difficult to forgive herself for past mistakes and receive the grace and mercy she so freely offered to others – which God so freely offers to us.

People like to say, “Gone but not forgotten.” They put it on headstones, on car windows, on tattoos. But we shouldn’t be content just to remember, the way we remember the people from our school years. Remembering should not stay in our heads and hearts, but be incarnational – we should live it out in the world, in what we say and do, in the priorities we set and the values we live. Theresa has taught us many faith lessons, and all of them are incarnational – all of them mirror God’s love for the world which is tangible – it can be seen and heard and felt. As you remember, make a conscious decision to live your life differently because you knew her. Honor her life, her love, her legacy, by living it. Stay in relationship with her, hearing and feeling her guide you toward your better selves – toward being generous, vivacious, devoted, forgiving. By doing these things we honor her, and the God she loves.