I preached a sermon yesterday that left me wondering if I was clear. I am writing this to attempt to clarify what may not have been clear yesterday. Unfortunately, it may not be clear today either. You be the judge.
The message was based in an encounter between Peter and and a Gentile named Cornelius recorded in Acts 10. Peter had a vision in which God told him not to call unclean that God calls clean. Then, when preaching to Cornelius (along with his friends and family), the Holy Spirit came on all those Gentiles. To me, the most surprising thing is what happened next: Peter and the Jewish Christians are, apparently, surprised that the Holy Spirit has been given to the Gentiles. Based on what God had just done in Peter’s vision and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Jewish Christians decided it was ok to baptize the Gentile believers.
Though it may not have been apparent, this was a very personal sermon. It was born out of my own painful journey.
It has always been important to me to believe the right things. I gravitated toward systematic theology — the branch of theology in which our doctrines are defined — because I desire clarity. Unfortunately, peace was not coming. I was haunted by the worry that I might be believing the wrong thing. After all, there have been many people of great intellect, energy and passion who, having devoted themselves to the study of the Bible, arrived at different conclusions. They are all smarter and more learned than me, so who is right? Whose assertions about truth do I trust? What if I “get it wrong”? How wrong can you be and still go to heaven?
This way of living and growing in my faith was leaving me with fear. Yet the scriptures tell us that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18 (ESV))
This is where the Acts 10 comes in to bring me peace. Peter didn’t understand Jesus’ full mission and intent. PETER, for cryin’ out loud! He walked with and listened to Jesus personally for three years. He saw Jesus transfigured and resurrected. Jesus is, to that very day, doing miracles through Peter. And yet Peter was surprised by what God did by pouring out the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles.
This is where the peace comes. Peter didn’t understand everything and that was ok because Peter’s faith wasn’t in a book, it was in a person: Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t have to understand everything because my faith isn’t in a book, either. My trust is in God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
The book — the Bible — is still of extraordinary importance and worthy of our deepest study. But if we are trusting the Bible to save us, then we’d better get it just right or we’re goners. If we are studying the Bible from this pinched perspective of fear, we will either ignore difficult verses or try to artificially squish them into what we think has to be right. But if we are trusting Jesus the real live person to save us, then the exploration of scripture becomes an exciting journey rather than fearful ride. We are free to come across difficult passages and say, “I wonder what in the world that means!” or “Holy cats! How does that fit into my faith? How does that affect my view of the way God works in the world?” (For instance, did you know that people were getting healed by touching handkerchiefs that had touched Paul’s skin. Don’t believe me? Check it out in Acts 19:28) We are free, based on new experiences, new knowledge, or even just rereading, to understand the scriptures a little differently than we used to… or a great deal differently. We are free to do this because our salvation is in the hands of Jesus Christ, not in our understanding of the Bible.
Let me try to sum it up. If the Bible were the “salvation formula,” then we would never have peace because we can never be sure we’ve got it right. But the Bible doesn’t save us, Jesus does. Trust Jesus — the living, breathing, hugging, compassionate, resurrected, image-of-the-invisible-Father Jesus — to save you as a lifeguard drags a drowning man from the water and then learn about and grow close to him through the Bible.
Looking back on what I just wrote, it occurs to me that this may simply be my struggle and no one else’s. Sometimes the biggest deal for one person isn’t even a blip on the radar for another person. And I’m still not sure I adequately expressed what I am trying to communicate. But, there it is. Good night and God bless.