Easy Reading

The Reformation itself is grounded upon a doctrine with a terrible name – the perspicuity of scripture.  Perspicuity, a word that I can’t even pronounce, that most people probably don’t recognize, means something real simple. It is the doctrine that normal people can read the scriptures and understand them.  “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John. 20:31)”  That taps into “the priesthood of all believers” and Luther at Worms stand on conscience. Luther would also stand in his great work “The Freedom of a Christian (1520)” on a semi-mystical point that “God would make us theodidacti, that is those taught by God (John 6:45).”   And all of it gets summed up in the Reformation slogan “sola scriptura” – word alone.

At the time the Roman church argued that, “no, the scriptures were not comprehensible by ordinary people.  You need the pope to tell you what they mean.”  And given the situation today, it might be much harder to argue with them.  As they satirically argued, “you are replacing 1 pope with millions of popes.”  And that might not seem so satirical today.  Of course the Roman argument has to wrestle with Paul saying things like, “not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, (Phil. 2:12 ESV)” just as much as with those verses from John. Luther was a sharp reader of scripture.  And Luther’s real radical streak was his willingness to trust God for his people.  “My sheep hear my voice (John 10).”

There is always the tension in the church to want to over control things. Whether that is to put God in the box. Saying to God that he must act this way.  Or if that is to put all the sheep under one shepherd who is not Christ. The Spirit blows when He wills.  We all like sheep have gone astray and only one shepherd is the good shepherd.  There are a bunch of reasons, but those are some of the reasons I love our First reading from Acts 8:26-40 this week.  The reading about the Ethiopian Eunuch.  It is a happening about all these confusing things.

It concerns Philip who was one of the 7 appointed deacons.  The deacons were supposed to take care of the widows and orphans fund.  But as soon as they are “ordained” you find Stephen preaching himself into martyrdom.  And you find an Angel of the Lord telling Philip to “rise and go (Acts 8:26).”  That spirit tells Philip to go out to a desert place.  He blows where he wills. He uses the means he desires. Somehow along this desert road the Ethiopian Eunuch is traveling in a chariot reading Isaiah. The Spirit sends Philip up to him, and the scriptures are not all that perspicuous. “Do you understand what you are reading?  How can I, unless someone guides me? (Acts 8:30-31)”  Now that might seem to be a slam dunk passage for the Pope, but Luther might say that it seems to be a perfect case of God ensuring teaching, of the Ethiopian Eunuch being a theodidacti. Our slogans never capture the full complexity.  Moving from preacher or teacher to Pope is a big step.  One that doesn’t seem authorized.  A usurpation of what Christ alone fulfills.

Because the Eunuch immediately runs past the teacher.  Somehow, out in the desert, “see, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized? (Acts 8:37)” And the answer is nothing.  They stop, Philip baptizes, and when they come up “the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away.” That Spirit of the Lord was now abiding in the Ethiopian.  (The Ethiopian church to this day maintains a story about his work on his return.)  And that Spirit of the Lord had other work for Philip to do.  “Philip found himself in Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns (Acts 8:40).”

We have this desire to make everything neat.  A Pope to make things clear. A confession to give us surety. An office that would guard the teaching.  And God often kindly works though such means. But our surety is never in the means, it is always in the one – in Christ. In the Spirit.  “We are all beggars” were Luther’s last written words. And what we are begging for is not some magical talisman or wise teacher or scroll.  Every earthly prop gives way.  We are begging for God himself to stop and not pass us by.  That we too might have that water of life.

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