Walking Together on the Endless Road
Bible Text: Ephesians 4: 1-6; 1 John 4: 7-12 | Preacher: Earl Zimmerman
Summary: Walking together on the endless road of engaging the Bible in response to the constantly changing challenges of our time means not treating the Bible like a one-size-fits-all instructional manual. Using abortion as a case study demonstrates that it involves both intense listening to the real-life situations of people as well as to the wisdom of the Bible.
We’re walking together on the endless road of engaging the Bible as a people of faith in response to the constantly new challenges of our time. It’s in this intersection of life and faith that we encounter the holy and the divine, which we name as God. It’s a life-filled path of growing together as our lives connect on this journey. Yet we can find ourselves estranged when we our disagreements about which path we will take tests our love for each other.
We gain patience, compassion, and love as we walk together. It’s tempting to take a short-cut by treating the Bible as an answer book—forgetting that it’s a complex book of wisdom written by many different authors over thousands of years. Another short-cut is to cut ourselves off from our sisters and brothers who understand the Bible or a faithful response to a particular matter differently than we do. Peter Enns says that figuring out the best path in our spiritual journey is a bit like parenting. We soon find out that each child is different and that there’s no one-size-fits-all book on raising kids. “Parenting is winging it, and each time you do, you learn more so you can learn to wing it better and better.”1 He adds:
Likewise, spiritual maturity won’t happen by looking to the Bible as a one-size-fits-all-how-to-grow-up-Christian instructional manual. We can’t “go to the Bible” for ironed-out answers, or even principles, to many—or most—of the specific and important decisions we make every second of the day, on the fly.2
We, instead, walk that long, endless road with our sisters and brothers. Sure, there will be plenty of disagreements and even heated arguments along the way, but there will also be lots of energy and excitement as we gain trust and confidence in each other and our sense of where God is leading us. From an Anabaptist perspective, the written text of the Bible is not an adequate guide in itself. We don’t worship the Bible. I like the way the 16th century Anabaptist leader Ulrich Stadler explains that the Bible “is like a sign on an inn which witnesses to the wine in the cellar. But the sign is not the wine.”3
The wine in the cellar is God’s extravagant upside-down kingdom, kin-dom, beloved community, new world coming. The wine is the life and vision of Jesus as God’s beloved Son. As followers of Jesus, we interpret the whole Bible through this frame. We’re not biblical literalists who say it’s our right or even our duty to kill our enemies because that’s what King David did. We, instead, look to Jesus who taught us how to love our enemies.
Last Sunday I talked about how all the changes in our world can make us anxious and we considered Jesus’ counsel to not worry but to instead trust in God who even cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Today, we will consider how we live and discern what’s of God and what’s life-giving in the midst of all these changes. Not all change is good.
How do we keep out little boat upright and not allow the rip tides of change to dash us against the rocks? God’s upside-down kingdom as taught and lived by Jesus is our north-star in the midst of such wild waves. As the writer of I John reminds us, “God is love.” “If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us.” Likewise, Paul encourages us, “Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together.” I’m an old salt who has been around the block a few times and I have the scars to prove it. In my experience, walking together on this endless road will tax our humility, gentleness, and patience.
Various storms of change have ripped through the church during my life time. Some of these storms have created epic battles with people lining up different Bible verses to prove that they’re right. We never get very far with that approach. We may convince ourselves that we’re right but we rarely convince those on the other side of the argument. The reason is that such matters are never black and white. There’s always an element of ambiguity and messiness. As Oliver Wendel Holmes said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Let’s take the matter of abortion, which remains a touchy topic for many Americans. Hopefully, I’m not a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. What I have to say will not exactly please people on either side of this debate and the most circumspect approach might be to not say anything. But I’m in good company, so let me be a fool and at least cautiously tiptoe in.
Lots of church people in my home community in Pennsylvania were really upset when the US Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, one year after Ruth and I were married. Catholics and Evangelicals were in the forefront of the fight against abortion, which remains true to this day. As a young married couple Ruth and I joined others in attending a pro-life rally in Philadelphia organized by well-known evangelical leaders Francis and Edith Schaeffer and their son Frank. It was ugly. Frank, who considering himself something of a playwright, showed graphic images of fetuses, combined with hate filled vitriol against those who performed abortions. There was little about it that was loving or that modeled following Jesus.
So much of the pro-life movement is still angry and unloving, making it hard for me to be very sympathetic with them and their moral or political position. I have moral qualms about all willful killing, including taking the lives of enemy combatants and felons. A consistent pro-life position needs to be concerned about all of life, including that of each baby that’s born. Still, I’m hardly pro-choice. While I don’t equate a fetus (especially in the first trimester) with a human life, I still consider it a precious potential human life.
While I respect a woman’s right to choose, I still believe that inducing an abortion is never a good thing and is at best an unfortunate necessity. Abortion is most justified in cases of rape, incest, and protecting the life of the mother. It’s incredibly unfortunate that this controversy has become such a political football in our country. Partisans on both sides use the issue to raise money and mobilize their political base. For fear of a political backlash, politicians strictly hew the party line. This leaves little space for a middle ground or for discerning how to negotiate the complexity and messiness of real life choices.
I encountered such an agonizing situation in the lives of very poor pastor and his family in a rural town in the Philippines. It was a combined family. The pastor’s older children from a former marriage lived with him and his younger second wife. They also had several younger children from the second marriage. It was never quite clear what had happened to the pastor’s former wife—some said she had abandoned her family. There was no legal provision for divorce in the Philippines, so the second marriage was a not legal, which was not uncommon. The family at least had a roof over their heads in a simple parsonage house beside the church, but survival and putting food on the table was a day to day struggle.
When the pastor’s second wife became pregnant again, she took matters into her own hands. There was no legal provision for abortion through the medical profession, but there were local practitioners who performed them through herbal medicine. She got an abortion in that way without telling her husband. He was completely distraught when he found out what she had done. What kind of spiritual support and guidance do we give such families?
Can we fault a woman for getting an abortion when she has no idea how she will provide for her child after it’s born? Abortions are more common in poor countries like the Philippines, even though they’re illegal, than they are in some rich countries where abortion is legal but there’s good healthcare and childcare support. As followers of Jesus, our position should be a consistent pro-life ethic that supports every human life. Providing good, accessible contraception, healthcare and childcare for all would go a long way toward resolving the abortion issue. Then, we would be better able to tackle the question of legal limits on abortion, especially during the last trimester of a pregnancy.
Let’s return to walking together on the endless road of engaging the Bible as a people of faith in response to the challenges of our time. The Bible is not an instruction manual from which we pull out proof texts that answer complex situations such as abortion. Instead, it’s a book of wisdom that that helps us to see the beloved community of God’s reign and invites us to be part of that new world coming.
We listen deeply to what Scripture is saying and interpret it through our own experience. We consider how others have understood it through the ages. Furthermore, we consider other sources of reason such as the medical profession and the social sciences. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience together provide a four-fold source of wisdom that helps us discern what is good, what is true, what is beautiful, and what is life-giving. This is the intersection of faith and life where we meet God who is love.
1 Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 134.
2 Ibid., 134-135.
3 Walter Klaassen, Ed., Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 143.