The prospect of starting a New Year prompts many people to make changes in their lives, to reach closer to the goals or standards they have for themselves. It provides a time for self-assessment and for hope to dare to do better in how we live. Our attempts to come closer to our goals reveals our degree of self-discipline and commitment, and obstacles we need to overcome in reaching our goals or dreams.
New Year’s in the church signals the approach of Epiphany, the season of unveiling aspects of Jesus, finishing with Transfiguration Sunday on February 10, the last Sunday before the season of Lent. Before examining the readings set for these Sundays in the Common Lectionary, I decided to examine in this message how religious authorities over a period of many centuries conspired to misrepresent the ministry of Jesus in order to serve the self-interest of the institution. Then I read the Message Bible translation of 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 which is one of the readings for Transfiguration Sunday, which included the same message. Here is my take on the relationship between the institutional church and the information about Jesus in the Bible.
For most of our history, only a small percentage of people could read, and that percentage reached a low point after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Christian church shared the same situation as many Islamic congregations in poor and remote areas today: it had priests that could barely read using texts written in a language most people did not understand relying on their leaders to inform them as to what they should preach. The extent of the ignorance was exploited by the church leadership in pushing policies and practices that favoured the interests of the church. The church could conduct inquisitions and order the execution or persecution of people who threatened the power of the church, such as leaders who chose different interpretations of scripture or advocated different models of church. It could even order the execution of people who dared to translate the Bible into a language used by people associated with the translator, such as happened to John Tyndale. The printing press had many effects which included making it economical for many people to have access to Bibles printed in their own language and allowing more people to become able to read and write. Giving people access to Bibles in their own language allowed for a proliferation of movements that understood the mission of Jesus to be different than the official position of the established institutional church.
A relatively recent example of this effect was the Base movement that swept through Latin America when peasants and others started meeting, reading and discussing the Bible in groups away from the scrutiny of church leadership. When they realized how revolutionary Jesus was, they quit accepting the authority of political figures endorsed by the church hierarchy. Many faithful church leaders, such as Bishop Oscar Romero and hundreds of priests were killed by militias loyal to political leaders threatened by the spread of concerns for justice in their countries.
With the councils of Nicea held under the supervision of the emperor, the institutional church became increasingly preoccupied with policies and practices that advanced the material interests of the church, and increasingly used the threat of heaven and hell for the afterlife as a tool for controlling its members.
The use of the Bible and Christian doctrines as tools for advancing the interests of the institution and established secular powers continues today. The Christian faith was born among outcasts, born in a theology of the importance of community, and has been perverted to focus on individualism and the worthiness of the well-off. In North America, individuals described as Christian conservatives have worked to undermine public programs that provide care to the poor and marginalized and justice to those who have been treated injustly. They promote a theology of personal sovereignty and saving souls, and oppose the idea that the world is God’s world with us charged as stewards responsible for the well-being of the world. They oppose church initiatives that try to show respect for the environment or to stand with those subjected to persecution and abuse.
Epiphany is a season of unveiling, of revealing truth. I invite those who seek the truth to use some of this time to read the Bible for themselves and ask what the words say to them directly rather than through interpretations offered by others. Psalm 19, one of the readings for January 27, claims God’s word is made visible in creation. Let’s look at the world as it is, not as it has been defined by people preoccupied with power or wealth. Finally, let’s look at what Jesus has to say to us today through what is claimed he said in his life. May the veils that hinder our perception of truth be pierced and removed so that we may fully embrace our own created humanity.