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You asked for a sermon on The Authority of Scripture


 2 Timothy 3:14-17

 I: — Everyone is aware that technology is forever depersonalising life. As technology reaches farther into our daily lives, it is felt that spontaneity, freedom, self-expression decrease. We don’t like this. We object to technological domination. We seek to recover what is authentically human. We look for an oasis in life, a luxuriant space in life where the aridity of technology can’t overtake us. We want to find some aspect of life where spontaneity and freedom and self-expression can flourish.

One such oasis, safe from technological dehumanization, has been thought to be sex. Sex is one glorious oasis where we can be free of technology, one oasis where our humanity can thrive, one place where freedom can blossom. Let’s just “do it” and enjoy it and glory in it.

With what result? With the result that in no time at all we have technicized sex! Technology is invoked to help us have better sex. Now there are lotions, potions, pills, foods, underwear, body-paints — all of them sure-fire technologies. Every popular magazine from Reader’s Digest to Chatelaine has a “how-to” article per issue on better sex.

Better sex was supposed to result as we fled from technology. Now better sex is supposed to result as we pursue technology. What’s more, better sex is supposed to rehumanize us.

The truth is, the preoccupation with better sex makes us rely on technology even as we are supposed to be fleeing technology. The contradiction here renders sex dehumanizing.

Furthermore, while technology and sexual expression are supposed to be antithetical, it is plain that they feed off each other: after all, sex is being technicized increasingly, while technology is being sexualized increasingly. (Don’t we use sex to sell such technologies as computers, outboard motors and kitchen appliances?)

It seems that we are caught in a vortex we can’t escape. Our protest against technology intensifies our addiction to technology. Our attempt at recovering the authentically human causes us to forfeit the authentically human. Our efforts at rehumanizing ourselves end in dehumanizing ourselves.

How are we ever going to get beyond our imprisonment here and its self-contradiction?

Think for a minute about labour-saving devices. Technology is supposed to spare us the dehumanization of drudge-labour. But does labour-saving technology mean that we work any less? Does it mean that our work is any less distressing? Does it mean that work is any less the occasion of frustration or futility? A farmer with a tractor doesn’t work less or work less frustratingly than a farmer with a horse; he manages to get more acres ploughed. A fisherman with a steel-hulled trawler doesn’t work less than a fisherman with a wooden dory; he manages to catch more fish. In all of this human existence is not made more human! (A footnote about the fisherman: technology has enabled the fisherman to catch so much fish that now — in Newfoundland at least — there are no more fish for him to catch. The result is that a cherished way of life has disappeared and the fishing community is more dehumanized than ever!)

Think for a minute about the mass media. The mass media do many things. For one, they create the illusion of personal involvement. As people watch news clips about victims of earthquakes in Haiti or victims of urban overcrowding in Mexico City they unconsciously delude themselves into thinking that they are personally involved. They now think that passivity is activity. They equate their boob-tube passivity with activity, and talk thereafter as if they were involved!

In the second place the mass media persuade us that we are all on the edge of a new society. President Lyndon Johnson kept talking about the “Great Society”. Where is it? What was great about it? He meant that his presidency was the cutting edge of a greater society. Greater than what? Greater than whose? Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau kept talking about “The Age of Aquarius”. His pet cliche was “The land is strong”. He meant that the land was newly strong, strong in a way it never was before.

Why would anyone think we are on the edge of a “new society”? What is the evidence for it? As long as the image is created of a “new society” or a “great society” or a “land that is strong”; as long as the image is created the reality will never have to be delivered! In fact the image — the false image — is created deliberately so that the reality won’t have to be delivered. What conscienceless falsification! What cynical exploitation of gullible people!

While we are talking about dehumanization we might as well mention the mass media and trivialization. The mass media bring before us pictures of starving children with protruding bellies together with pictures of mint-scented green mouthwash. Doesn’t this juxtaposition trivialize starvation and the suffering born of it? Recently I was listening to the radio. The news broadcast (supposedly a broadcast of events of immense human significance) was preceded by three back-to-back-to-back advertisements: a new kind of candy, pita bread sandwiches now available in Seven-Eleven stores, and Astroglide (Astroglide being a super-slippery vaginal lubricant). What is the human significance of the news when the news is preceded by such trivia? Trivialization? What do the mass media do better?

In American newspapers the Donald and Ivana Trump hanky-panky displaced reports on the reunification of Germany. Where is our humanity in the midst of such trivialization, which trivialization has so thoroughly victimized most people that they cannot recognize it?

Where is our humanity? In view of the fact that everything which claims to augment it and preserve it appears only to diminish it, what are we going to do? Where, how, are we going to be authentically human?

Since we have been thinking about news we might as well ask ourselves whether the news is even new. Recently the lead item in the newscast described the shooting of nine people in British Columbia. Is this new? There are dozens of multiple shootings every year.

The depredations in Bosnia are front-page news. But are they new? At the turn of the century the Turks slew the Armenians and the British slew the Afrikaners. Later everybody slew everybody in Europe. More recently the Americans ignited Viet Namese children with jellied gasoline and gloated as the torment couldn’t be assuaged. So what’s new about Bosnia?

The apostle Paul tells us (Acts 17:21) that the people of Athens “spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” The Athenians were “news junkies”. But none of it was new! After all, what can the depraved heart and mind, turned in on itself, do besides reproduce itself?

Neither is there anything new in the microcosm of the individual. When we look into individual human hearts we find people accusing themselves (as surely as they are accused by others), sinking all the way down into self-loathing. When they can no longer endure their self-loathing they “wake up” and exclaim, “Heh! I’m not that bad! I’m no worse than anyone else! In fact, after a moment’s reflection I’m sure I’m better than most!” Fleeing from self-loathing now, they flee into self-righteousness. Self-righteous people regard themselves as fine company. The problem is, their company can’t stand them. After a while the self-righteous begin to ask themselves why no one else can stand them. Soon they get the point: others can’t stand them just because they are thoroughly obnoxious. Then they begin the slide down into self-loathing — and the cycle starts all over.

How do we break the cycle? How do we learn the truth about ourselves and get off the teeter-totter?

When people are jabbed they feel they have to jab back. Their honour is at stake. Their ego-strength is at stake. Their identity is at stake. If someone uses a flamethrower on them, they have to retaliate with their own flamethrower. If they don’t, they will be regarded as wimps, will come to regard themselves as wimps, and in any case may feel themselves to be wimps already. But at all costs they mustn’t appear to be wimps. Therefore the retaliatory flamethrower has to be fired up.

But of course whenever different parties are wielding flamethrowers there are many seared hearts and many smouldering hearts. Isn’t there a better way to live? Where is it? How do we find it?

II: — There are those who have exemplified a better way. Jacques Ellul (he died only last year, aged 83) was a professor of law at the University of Bordeaux when German forces occupied France. Ellul immediately joined the French resistance movement. Working underground by night, he did all he could to aid the cause of the resistors: he sabotaged German military vehicles, disrupted communications, and so on. Then one of his law-students betrayed him to the Gestapo. Friends learned of the betrayal and whisked him out of Bordeaux to the French countryside where farmers hid him as a farm-labourer. He continued his resistance activities from his new “home”.

Any member of the French resistance who was caught was tortured unspeakably. (All of this made famous by the notorious Klaus Barbie.) In fact, French resistors were tortured so badly that the British government pleaded with the French resistors to quit: the effect of their efforts was very slight (the German war-machine scarcely inconvenienced by it) while the penalty for being caught was atrocious. Ellul refused to quit. He said that to quit (even though not quitting was terribly dangerous) would mean that he had acquiesced in the struggle against evil; to quit would mean that he had surrendered to Satan; to quit would mean that fear of pain had triumphed over vocation to the kingdom; to quit, he said, would mean that he had forfeited his humanity. And so he didn’t quit, despite terrible risks.

After the war Ellul learned of the treatment accorded war-time collaborationists. (Collaborationists were those French men and women who cooperated with the German occupation in hope of saving their own skin. When Germany didn’t win, French citizens howled for the scalps of the collaborationists.) The French government treated these people brutally. Whereupon Ellul stepped out of his law-school professorial robes and became the lawyer representing the collaborationists. He defended the very people who would gladly have consigned him to torture and death during the war. All of a sudden Ellul went from being a wartime hero (brave resistance fighter) to a peacetime bum (public defender of French scum).

Why did he do this? How was he able to do this? He declared that he lived in a new creation; he lived in a new order where standards, expectations, assumptions were entirely different from those of the old order. He noted that virtually everyone clung to the old order even though God’s judgement had doomed it, while virtually nobody dwelt in the new order, even though God’s blessing had established it.

Then Ellul said something more. He said he was tired of hearing people discuss faith in terms of belief. Faith isn’t a matter of what we believe or say we believe or think we might believe; faith is what we do by way of answering the questions God puts to us. When God questions us we have to answer. Verbal answers won’t suffice. Verbal answers are so far from faith that they are an evasion of faith. When God draws us into the light of that new creation which he has caused to shine with startling brightness, then either we do something that mirrors this new creation or we are possessed of no faith at all, regardless of how piously we talk or how religiously we behave. Either we do the truth or we have no use for Jesus Christ at all and we should stop pretending anything else.

And so brother Jacques provided a legal defense to spare the people who would never have spared him a year earlier.

In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul says — what does he say? “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature” (KJV). The RSV text reads, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. (This is better). Better yet is the NRSV: “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation. The difference between “creature” and “creation” is significant. I am certainly a creature, but I am not the creation; I am not the entire created order. The Greek word for “creature” is KTISMA; the word for “creation” is KTISIS. Paul uses the latter word, KTISIS, creation. The NEB captures it perfectly. “When anyone is united to Christ, there is a new world; the old order has gone, and a new order has already begun…”.

The truth is, Paul has written an elliptical sentence, a sentence without a verb. Literally the apostle says, “If anyone in Christ — new creation! — the old has gone…”. Paul would never deny that the man or woman who is united to Christ is a new creature; he would never deny this. But neither is this what he is saying in 2 Cor. 5:17! Paul would never deny J.B. Phillips’ translation of the verse: “If a man is in Christ, he becomes a new person altogether.” He would never deny the truth of this; but this isn’t what he’s saying in this text. The apostle is declaring that to be bound to Jesus Christ in faith is to be aware of a new creation, a new order; to see it, glory in it, live in it, live from it, live for it.

Unquestionably Ellul lived in this new order. Do we? Whether we do or don’t is never indicated by what we say, insists Ellul; whether we do or don’t is announced by what we do. What we do is how we answer the questions God puts to us. Needless to say the pre-eminent question God puts to us is, “Where do you live?”

Centuries before Ellul the apostle Paul, plus so many others in the primitive church, knew where they lived. For this reason the apostle had startling advice to give to Philemon concerning Onesimus.

Onesimus was a slave. He stole from his master, Philemon, and then ran away. In the days of the Roman Empire a runaway slave was executed as soon as he was discovered. Onesimus surfaced in the Christian community in Rome, no doubt assuming that Christians wouldn’t turn him in. Under the influence of Paul, Onesimus came to faith and repented of his theft.

To Onesimus Paul said, “You had better high-tail it back to Philemon before the police department catches up with you, or else you will be hanged.” To Philemon (who had earlier come to faith under Paul’s ministry in Asia Minor) Paul said, “I am sending Onesimus back to you, sending my very heart.”

People today excoriate Paul, “Why did he send Onesimus back at all?” For the simple reason that either Onesimus went back or Onesimus was going to be executed. Let’s hear what else Paul wrote to Philemon. “I am sending Onesimus back to you, sending my very heart. Take him back. But don’t take him back as a slave; take him back as a beloved brother…. Receive him as you would receive me.” As Philemon would receive Paul? Paul was a citizen of Rome! Then Philemon must receive his runaway, light-fingered slave as he would receive a citizen and a free man.

On the one hand the legal status of Onesimus was still “slave”, since his slave-status was something only the Roman government could alter. On the other hand, Onesimus was going back to Philemon not as a slave but as a family-member. “Take him back no longer as a slave”, wrote Paul, “take him back as brother in the flesh and in the Lord.” Because Onesimus was a brother in the Lord he was therefore to be cherished as a “brother in the flesh”, as a blood-relative, a family-member.

Inasmuch as the primitive church lacked political “clout” it couldn’t do anything about overturning slavery as an institution. Yet because the primitive church lived in the new creation, a new order, it disregarded the institution of slavery and looked upon Philemon (aristocratic) and Onesimus (low-born) as blood-brothers. And so the institution of slavery (unquestionably a feature of the old order) was subtly sabotaged as Christians held up the new order.

Let us never forget that Aristotle — whom some regard as the greatest philosopher of the ancient world — maintained that a slave was merely an animated tool that had the disadvantage of needing to be fed. Aristotle maintained that as well that a woman was an odd creature half-way between animal and male human. Yet Jesus addressed women as the equal of any male! Luke especially cherished this fact about Jesus, and so Luke’s gospel contains thirteen stories about women found nowhere else. Paul insisted not that wives subject themselves to their husbands, but that husbands and wives subject themselves to each other “out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph. 5:20) The gospel annihilates male dominance!

Jesus Christ brings a new order with him. He is Lord of this new order. And he makes us new by calling us into it.

New? How new? What do we mean by “new”? When I was in India I was startled by the good condition of the countless 1956 Fiat automobiles that scooted everywhere. Then someone told me that these cars were not forty years old. Many were brand new. The car manufacturers in India have never changed the machinery that makes 1956-model Fiats. Every car that the factory produces is a brand-new copy of the same old car!

A brand-new copy of the same old thing. Ellul maintains that this is what the world mistakenly calls new: a recent copy of the same old thing.

There are two Greek words for “new”: NEOS and KAINOS. NEOS means quantitatively new, chronologically new, merely more recent; KAINOS, on the other hand, means qualitatively new, genuinely new, new in substance.

Scripture insists that the qualitatively new, the genuinely new, is found only in Christ. Jesus Christ is new (kainos) creature himself; he brings with him a genuinely new creation; he is Lord of new creation and new creature; he summons us to join him under his Lordship and live in a new order as new people.

Of all the verses in scripture that move me few move me more than 1 Corinthians 10:11, where Paul speaks of Christians as those “upon whom the end of the ages has come.” The apostle uses “end” in both senses of the word: end as termination, and end as fulfilment. In Jesus Christ the fulfilment of the creation has come; and because its fulfilment has come, the old creation, old order is now terminated. Since the fulfilment of the creation has come, and since the termination of the old is underway right now, why aren’t we living in the new instead of in the old? Paul says that Christians live in the new by definition. Then the only thing for us to do is to live out what we already live in.

III: — You asked for a sermon on the authority of scripture. Scripture is the normative witness to all that we have pondered this morning. Scripture is not the new creation itself; not the new creation, not the new creature, not the Lord of new creation and creature. Scripture is merely the witness to all of this, yet the indespensable witness to it. Apart from scripture’s testimony it is impossible for us to know of new creation, new creature, and Lord of both; apart from scripture it is impossible for us to see the truth, to grasp the reality, to glory in a new world, to repudiate the old, to live out what we are called to live in. Because scripture uniquely attests what is genuinely new, apart from scripture the best that human existence can hold out for us is the most recent copy of the same old thing.

But to hear and heed the testimony of scripture is to refuse to settle for this; to hear and heed the testimony of scripture is to hear and heed him to whom it points: Jesus Christ our Lord. To hear and heed him is to find ourselves knowing, cherishing, exemplifying that new “world” which he has brought with him.

Jacques Ellul wouldn’t settle for the most recent copy of the same old thing. The French government and the French citizenry hailed him as hero one day and bum the next. Ellul couldn’t have cared less. He knew what’s real. The apostle Paul wouldn’t settle for the most recent copy of the same old thing. He knew that to be united to Christ is to live in that new order which Christ brings with him. The Roman government condemned Paul. He couldn’t have cared less. He knew what’s real.

I too know what’s real. What’s real is the end of the ages now upon us. What’s real is a new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells (to quote Peter now instead of Paul). I know too that it is only through the testimony of scripture, only as the Spirit of God vivifies this testimony and illumines my mind and thaws my heart, that the really real will continue to shine so luminously for me that I shall never be able to pretend anything else.

Ellul died last year. Peter and Paul died 2000 years ago. All three have joined the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us now. All three cherished scripture as the normative testimony to “that kingdom which cannot be shaken”. (Hebrews 12:28)

Faithfully they kept that testimony. And now the Lord of that testimony keeps them.


                                                                   Victor A. Shepherd
May 1996