As hymn theology gets updated, so, always, has scripture

Yes, God is still speaking—often through our hymns.

‘Us and Them’—”If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31);

16th century hymn—”Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining …
from the beginning the fight we were winning, Thou, Lord, at our side”;

17th century hymn by a pastor whose people suffered in Thirty Years War—”Now thank we all our God who has blessed us with countless gifts
of love, and blessed peace” (not so clearly ‘us and them,’ perhaps?);

Late 20th century reinterpretation of the 16th century hymn, above—”We gather in community, confessing the sins that divide; you draw us away from self-centered complaining, empowering all to follow your way.”


The gospel reading for today, John 18:33-38, in its very earliest version, written about the same time as Mark’s gospel, presents the crucial conversation between Jesus and Pilate simply this way: Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “You are ‘the King of the Judeans’?” “You’re the one who says I’m a king,” responded Jesus. [Signs Gospel 18:33,37.]

By the time the Gospel of John was in the form that has come to us, the narrative-only version had become full of theological interpretation:

Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “You are the King of the Judeans?” “Is this what you think,” Jesus answered, “or what other people have told you about me?” “Am I a Judean?” countered Pilate. “It’s your own people and the ranking priests who have turned you over to me. What have you done?”

To this Jesus responded, “Mine is not a secular government. If my government were secular my companions would fight to keep me from being turned over to the Judeans. But as it is, my government does not belong to the secular domain.” “So you are a king!” said Pilate. “You’re the one who says I’m a king,” responded Jesus. “This is what I was born for, and this is why I came into the world: to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth can hear my voice.” “What is the truth?” says Pilate. [John 18:33b-38a.]

What is truth, indeed? I’ve been noticing that, in the first generation or two after Jesus’ death and reappearance, it seemed to Jesus’ followers to be enough that the Romans had crucified their Master. By the time the version of John known to us began circulating, “the Judeans” had thrown the Jesus-people out of the synagogues and the seemingly-inevitable (in human terms) “us against them” mentality reigned. God had always been seen to take sides in human conflict. God still did, and does (that is, again, in human thinking).

But look at what even John says Jesus told Pilate: “Everyone who belongs to the truth can hear my voice.” ‘Everyone’ would have included Pilate, and the editors of John and anyone—anyone at all, not just those whose God, unlike the God of Jesus, takes sides. Last week, we read in Mark that for Jesus, God’s Realm was all-inclusive.

Because it’s widely accepted that more of people’s theology comes through hymns than through underlying scripture itself, I spent last week looking at the way what God says to us progresses through Thanksgiving hymns. Somehow our favorite hymns seem to celebrate God being on “our” side—not all of them, of course, but when was that last time we sang “We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”—the seed the song says comes as a blessing (to all!) from God’s hand?

1. We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing; he chastens and hastens his will to make known; the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing, sing praises to his name, he forgets not his own. Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining, ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine; so from the beginning the fight we were winning: Thou, Lord, wast at our side, all glory be thine! We all do extol thee, our leader triumphant, and pray that thou still our defender wilt be. Let thy congregation escape tribulation: thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free! [Netherlands, 16th century.]

The hymn celebrated Holland’s liberation from Spanish domination. ‘Us and them.’

2. Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices. Who, from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us. And keep us still in grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next. All praise and thanks … . [The Thirty Years War has been compared to the American Revolution in importance for all global history. It trashed Britain and Europe, with parties feeling, as ‘God’s people’, to be ‘good’ and their enemies ‘evil.’

By war’s end, some saw God as God of all, 1600s.]

3. We gather together to ask for God’s blessing, to live in community, seeking God’s will. We come now, as sisters and brothers, confessing the sins that divide and the wrong in us still. Beside us, forgiving, you call us, O Savior, to life that is new. You draw us away from self-centered complaining. You lead us and guide us in ways that are true. All praise to the Spirit, provider, defender. You offer us freedom to follow or stray. Empowering all by the hope you engender, grant wisdom and courage to follow your way.

[UCC minister Lavon Bayler wrote straightforward all-inclusive words to replace the 16th century celebration of Holland’s liberation. When we sang this version last week in our two regular worship services, I wonder how many noticed the way we hear God,s word progressing in the last few centuries?

When I was growing up, we used to sing, often, Lord, speak to me that I may speak.

As we are about to share the simple gifts of broken bread, and the healing cup of life, I would like to thank Lavon Bayler for having spoken an updated word of God, and to call each of us to continue listening, hearing, learning and, in turn, speaking what we have seen and heard in these days. The world needs to hear that God does not take sides but lavishly loves us all, whether suffering under seige or sinning with arms holding bazookas instead of the victims of hatred. God needs to speak through us.