The Company We Keep: Empathy and Reading the Bible Together (Acts 8)

This is the message I gave this past Sunday.


The Bible is, for better or for worse, one of the most influential documents in the history of the Western World. We sit here together in worship this morning largely because of the Bible. Many of us have grown up hearing the stories, memorizing the verses, and reading it in the privacy of our own homes. Many of us have turned to the Bible as a book of comfort in desperate times, have relied on its words to help us make sense of what to do with our lives, and have found within its pages the challenge to be transformed into more loving, peaceful, forgiving people.

Countless expressions and idioms in our culture today come from its pages. In an article, I read this week, about this year being the 400th anniversary of the KJV, the author pointed out numerous idioms we use in the English Language today (Can you Think of Any? Slide): “eat, drink and be merry,” “the apple of his eye,” “an eye for an eye,” “it came to pass,” “fight the good fight,” “can the leopard change his spots (Jer 13:23),” and of course “Am I my brother’s keeper.”

But we also know that the Bible has been abused and misused often against God’s beloved creation that the Bible teaches us about. It’s too often only given slogans status, as is often the case at sports games and on bumper-stickers. It’s been used to justify atrocities that should never happen. And the recent Florida pastor burned one people’s holy book, the Koran, in the name of our holy book, the Bible.

And we don’t have to reach far to find all the places that we struggle to make sense of the questions that the Bible raises for us. It’s often hard to find common agreement between different groups of people when they read it. All we need to remember is that slaveholders and slaves both read the Scriptures and had very different readings of what they found there. And let’s be honest, it’s hard to make sense of things in the Bible says:

  • What’s with all the stonings?
  • What about cutting your hand off if it causes you to sin? (Everyone has their hand)
  • And I know there are a couple of you who, like me, are fans of a certain Englishman with a lightening bolt scar, who goes to school in a place that sounds like a skin disease: Hogwarts. You know it says in Lev. 19:31 when it says “you should not turn to wizards.” I can’t really imagine God doesn’t like Harry Potter, unless he just doesn’t read? (Anyone seen that last part yet?)
  • (Slide) peppercorn Bacon Tillamook Cheeseburger is a serious OT violation just waiting to happen.

And let’s face it, these aren’t even the serious debates like we have around poverty, injustice, war and peace, homosexuality, immigration, and many other things.
Reading the Bible today can feel like a grab mixed bag, you reach in and are not sure what you’re going to pull out. If you’ve had bad experiences with people using the bible, it may feel like you’re reaching into a bag of snacks, whereas for some of you, there are mostly positive associations with Scripture so maybe you’re more used to reaching into a bag of Harry London chocolates?

Are these just stories? Do we read it all literally? How are we supposed to know? How do we  make sense of it thousands of years after it was written? These are questions I have too.

For me, I’ve grown up in the church my whole life. I went to loads of summer camps, went to various non-denominational churches, was confirmed as a catholic as a young person. Much of my early education was in catholic and Christian schools. And I took up the call to ministry which means that from the age of 18 to well, however old I am now, I’ve been reading and studying, dissecting, defending, objecting, and coming back to this book. I have dedicated my life to teaching and living the stories this book tells because I believe they are not only God’s stories, but our stories, my stories. But this doesn’t mean I don’t have to wrestle with it.

I go through various stages if reading the bible just about every week as I prepare (maybe you do too?). From the literal reading (and hearing my old teachers), to a kind of standoffishness (now, what am I supposed to do with this), to a renewed sense of life and opening. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written 2 and 3 drafts of a message because the first drafts are my own working out my issues with what it says, wrestling with God, asking God “What does this text have to say to us today?” And then trying to come to terms with that.

This is all to say that when we do not approach scripture with a clean slate, but are invited to enter into it’s world nonetheless and in entering we begin to be changed.

_The Ethiopian and Philip

So if we carry all these different things with us to the Bible when we read it, and we have our questions and uncertainties is there any help for us? How should we approach it?

This week for preparation we read this little story in Acts 8 with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Here you have an Ethiopian Eunuch who is a really important person in the entourage for the queen and for whatever reason the Eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship there. On his way out of the synagogue he must have picked up one of the bulletins from that Sabbath day worship and in it was printed a text from the book of Isaiah – “Hey just like ours!” He’s reading it on his way back home. Or maybe he had an ipad Bible app and that’s how he was reading it, it really doesn’t say here. In either case. Along comes Philip, a Jew and follower of Jesus, who is adept at listening to leadings of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit tells him to go up and meet the Eunuch. Philip overhears that the Eunuch is reading the prophet Isaiah out loud (subtext here, Luke, the author of Luke-Acts, uses Isaiah all throughout the stories to point to Jesus as the coming Messiah).

Philip says: “hey, do you have any idea what you’re reading?”
And the Eunuch responds: “How Can I, unless someone guides me?”

[Slide] So they sit down to have a first century bible study. The bible was never, ever, ever, meant to be read in isolation. It’s a community book. It’s the people’s book.  It’s for everyone and it’s meant to be read out loud and together. We are to hear these words read, and we are to ask it questions, and we are to read it together and help one another understand it. [This is why I love that the host reads Scripture every Sunday].

The Eunuch was fortunate enough to have one of the first disciples help him understand and interpret the text, we’re not so luck today – you’re stuck with some hack preacher from the mid-west. This may come as a shock but We don’t have anyone who has any kind of special knowledge about the Bible. We read it together as an interpretive community and rely on a collective intelligence, our collective wisdom, and collective experiences under the guidance of God’s Spirit to understand the Bible.

That’s how I take words “”How Can I, unless someone guides me?” today.

This is a strange notion for us today. We have been taught that to be a good Christian is one who reads the bible privately and finds meaning on their own. I think so so many of us stop reading the bible because we often feel guilty about how little we read and how little meaning we can find in it on our own. But this is idea of private bible study stems back to the reformation, not to the beginning of Christianity. It’s good to read the bible don’t get me wrong, I read it by myself a lot, but I never read it in isolation from an interpretive community.

So what is an interpretive community? Well, it’s all of us sitting here trying to make sense of what this text has to say to us today. But it’s more than that as well. It’s all of us participating with God’s Holy Spirit, whom the Gospel of John says “will teach us all we need to know,” and the interpretive community is also made up of our spiritual ancestors. All those pastors, teachers, mentors, parents, loved ones, and yes even our Quaker ancestors come with us, are the company we keep when we read the Bible.

_Reading the Bible with Empathy: “IN the Spirit that Gave them Forth.”

[Slide] So there is more to our community than who is sitting right here.

We have a spiritual community, a community of spiritual ancestors who have also read the Bible who we may turn to, like the Ethiopian, for help. For us, because we are a community that draws on the depth of resources in our tradition, we can learn from the way that Quakers have read the Bible as well.

Early Friends sought not to interpret the Bible in a literal and fundamentalist way, but rather as our friend T. Vail Palmer has said, in an empathetic way.

[Slide] For Fox and Fell, the biblical history was indeed the history of their own time; every player in the drama of seventeenth-century England had a counterpart in the biblical drama of the people of God and its enemies (Palmer Jr. 1993: 44).

Early Friends saw themselves as participants in the Biblical story, a part of the actual narrative of the Bible. They entered into the Biblical drama and owned it for themselves as their own story.

[ILL] It’s the difference between simply watching “So You Think you Can Dance” actually getting on the show and doing the dancing.

[ILL. James Nayler] Early Friends road into Bristol on the back of a donkey, is either a heretical move under the literalist reading of Scripture or public theater, or “Godly Play” for adults (as Peggy Parsons would say) from an empathetic view of Scripture.

Michael Birkel says early Friends sought to read the Bible “in the same Spirit that Gave them forth.” “Early Friends used biblical language to describe their inward experiences.” “They did not simply read the scriptures. They lived them. For them, reading the Bible was not just an exercise in information. It was an invitation to transformation.”

This is what I mean by saying that Quakers read the bible with empathy. There are many example of this from early Friends such as Fox (cf. Michael Birkel – p.3-11). For instance, Birkel shows in just three of Fox’s sentences written to friends there are 7 references that Fox never cites but uses as his own language.

Early Friends sought to read in ways that helped them reflect on the Spirit behind the Scripture, so that they could incorporate it into themselves, and they into it:

In 2 Corinthians 3 it says “our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

For Quakers, we read the Bible as an interpretive community, working out together what it meant in times past, and what they mean for us today. We like the Ethiopian invite help from our expansive community and from God’s Holy Spirit.  We don’t read for the letter but for the Spirit behind the text, the Spirit who birthed the Scriptures. That same Spirit who penned the Scriptures we now have is the one whom we have access to as the resurrection community.

We are invited to read the Bible as a story that we are intricately a part of, that we are participants in the unfolding of. We read it meditatively seeking allow it to change us, to become the language of our inner landscape, to become our stories, the thing that forms us and our desires, our hopes, and our aims. And with help, may we find transformation just like the Eunuch.

Open Worship
1. How might Scripture help to give me language for my “inner landscape?”
2. How might this “interpretive community” help me have a renewed understanding and appreciation for the Bible?
3. What ways might I begin reading the bible with empathy?
4. What places do I need “someone to guide me?”