The Bible as “An Altar Where We Meet the Living God”

I’m afraid I’m the kind of Christian who thinks about the Bible more often than I actually read it. So I’m excited to be taking part in a new initiative from my denomination called the Community Bible Experience. Starting this week and continuing up to Palm Sunday, dozens of people in our congregation are re-reading the entire New Testament — in a chapter/verse-free format from Biblica that places the texts in a new, more chronological sequence. Each Saturday morning my wife and I will help lead an intergenerational small group where parents and children alike will share reactions to this fresh look at God’s word:

What did we notice for the first time? What questions did we have? What bothered us?

What did we learn about loving God and loving our neighbors?

Biblica's "Books of the Bible" New Testament
Biblica’s “The Books of the Bible: New Testament”

As I start in with the Gospel of Luke, I’ve been thinking about how my pastor and co-author Mark Pattie described Scripture in our forthcoming book on Pietism:

…Pietists understood the Bible to be “an altar where we meet the living God.” Far from simply being a receptacle for information — even God-inspired information — the Pietists held that the Scriptures are primarily a God-inspired gift for transformation. They taught that when we reverently approach the Bible, inviting the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts and lives to the Word of God, the Scriptures are the powerful means by which God can equip us to live out the good we were created to accomplish. They have the power to transform us by the renewal of our minds, as the Apostle Paul urges, so that we will not be conformed to this world, but rather able to discern and, by God’s grace, do the will of God (Rom 12:2).

Taken from a 1963 statement by the Covenant Church, there’s something incredibly powerful about the idea of the Bible as “an altar where we meet the living God.” Not only will individual lives be changed by the simple act of reading those ancient words, but doing so has the potential to bring about larger transformations — for example, to open the hearts and minds of American Christians to their complicity in the injustices of our society, and to equip us to live out the good God made us to accomplish in our world.

But it’s also a frightening, humbling notion. The metaphor of coming before an altar clearly suggests that there is something both sacred and sacrificial about the act of reading the Bible. For my part, I especially need to come into God’s presence prepared to lay before him my pride as a scholar and teacher. I’m accustomed to reading as an act of mastery, of absorbing, analyzing, and applying information. But reading the Bible is an act of submission, of learning the limits of one’s own understanding and wisdom.

I thought about this during our visit to London this past January. One Sunday we went to worship at St Paul’s Cathedral: a matins service in which the Bible lessons and prayers were almost entirely sung by a choir. It was beautiful — and almost impossible to understand. Thanks to the acoustics of the space and the arrangement of the music, the words echoed and overlapped, to the point that they became an almost incomprehensible cacophony.

I felt frustrated, even angry. But then it hit me: we’re accustomed to reading the Bible within the boundaries of our own preferences, but what I was experiencing was probably closer to what it’s really like to encounter the word of a God whose knowledge and wisdom are so deep as to make his judgments unsearchable and his ways inscrutable.

And as I accepted my limits, I started to listen differently — and heard moments of clarity emerging from the reverberating mass. As the choir sang the Te Deum, I underlined a word here and a phrase there that came through clearly. By the end of the prayer, my ears had acclimated to the point that I could make out the entire closing line:

O Lord, in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded.

That’s my prayer, but I still fully expect to be confused, if not confounded, during the next eight weeks. And that’s okay. It’s part of the experience of coming into the presence of the living God.

Duccio, [Jesus'] Appearance While the Apostles Are at Table
Duccio’s early 14th century painting of the resurrected Jesus appearing before the eleven remaining disciples – Wikimedia
In his sermon Sunday, Mark previewed this week’s readings by looking to the end of Luke’s gospel. Cleopas and his friend have just come into the room with the disciples, breathlessly relating the story of their journey to Emmaus — where they finally realized that the person who had “open[ed] the Scriptures to them” was none other than Jesus, risen from the dead. Suddenly, Jesus himself is standing there, saying “Peace be with you.” Instead, they are “startled and terrified,” so Jesus shows them his feet and hands. Then, to underscore that he is not a ghost, but a resurrected, whole person, he asks them for something to eat.

It’s a story I’ve heard many times, but for some reason, I had never paid attention to the clause that precedes Jesus’ request for food: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…” (Luke 24:41a).

He goes on to “[open] their minds to understand the scriptures,” and our Lord can do the same for each of us, by the power of the Holy Spirit. But I keep coming back to that mix of feelings the disciples experienced as they came into the presence of the impossibly living God, and I suspect that we should approach his altar expecting nothing less: not comprehension, but disbelief, wonder, and joy.

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