Scripture: The Great, Accessible Gift
Scripture: The Great, Accessible Gift
David Bartlett, Distinguished Professor of New Testament
I was a summer intern at the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles, and I was asked to preach the sermon for the Sunday evening service. This was my chance to tell the folk pretty much everything I had learned at school, and I took full advantage of the opportunity. Then the senior minister came down with the flu and suddenly I had to preach the next Sunday evening too. Desperately I tried to think of who would be in the congregation that evening and guessed that they would be folk who were notably not notable, at least not in the eyes of the larger world. Then I tried to think of a text I might use to buttress my thoughts on ordinariness and came up with Mark 1:16-20. Because I was pretty much at witís end, I decided to start working on the sermon by carefully reading the text.
Astonishingly, the text made claims I had never noticed before and even more astonishingly a sermon began to come together. One line from the text I remember to this day. Jesus says: ďFollow me and I will make you fishers of people.Ē Itís the I will make you that I had never noticed before. This was not a call to self-reliance but a call from Godís grace in Jesus Christ. From that day until this, I have been convinced that Christian preaching and indeed Christian conversation and moral discourse and decision making begin with Scripture.
Not long after, I found a theological perspective that fit my preaching experience. Karl Barth said that the Word of God comes to us in three forms. The first form of the word of God is the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ; the second form is Scripture; the third, preaching. This claim by Barth helped me distinguish myself from some of my fellow Baptists and even from some Presbyterians when it came to scripture. It was not the case that the greatest gift God ever gave us is the Bible. The greatest gift God ever gave us is Godís own Son. The importance of the Bible is not that it is literally true about everything or that it is an encyclopedia of answers to every possible question. The importance of the Bible is that it points to Christ who points to God.
Barthís claim also helped me understand what had happened to me on that Sunday when I was stuck preaching. The best place to find true witness to the true Christ is in the Bible. I am not as convinced as Barth that there is no other way to get to God than through Scripture, but I am entirely convinced that there is no better way. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, the biblical words point us to Christ more powerfully and consistently than any other resource. Yet it is not scripture by itself that bears witness to Christ. It is Scripture as interpreted. As Barth did, I have often found witness to Christ in scripture as preached. But sometimes it has been in Scripture as discussed in Bible study, or as the basis for a decision by the Board of Deacons or as the text for a hymn. What bears witness is Scripture embodied in the life of the community.
Some people naively suggest that at Christmas or Easter we should just read the Lukan birth narrative or the story of the empty tomb in Mark and faith will abound. If we had just those stories without the conversations, sermons, and prayers and hymns that interpret them, they would be entirely bizarre and incomprehensible. Scripture is a great gift because it points to Christ. Scripture is an accessible gift because we are invited to talk about it, interpret it, claim it.
David Bartlett, who joined the seminary faculty in 2006, had served previously as dean of Yale Divinity School. He is the author of numerous articles and books and is general editor (with Barbara Brown Taylor) of Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.