Today is the Last Sunday after Trinity, it is also the Feast day of the Apostles St Simon and St Jude, and on top of that it is ‘Bible Sunday’ – so our thoughts this morning are focussed around the idea of the feast of God’s word that is our Bible. And I have only minutes to get to grips with the subject. So here goes, oh and for those who were at Team Evening Worship last week who recognise any of this, my apologies, some of this had to be said again!
How would you describe the Bible? (Few suggestions?) Word of God is the usual one. It is a title we need to be careful of, though – JESUS IS THE WORD OF GOD (John 1.1 ‘In the beginning was the Word’) I have a high regard for the Bible, it is foundational in my faith, it guides me, leads me, tells me the roots of the Christian story and invites me to join in. But I do not worship the Bible, I worship Jesus Christ.
How would you feel if we did as members of Sikhism do? If we treated the book of the Bible with such reverence and awe that we gave it its own bed to sleep in, and every morning took it out of bed with a procession and placed it on its reading stand. The act of worship in a Sikh temple basically involves reverencing the Granthi – the Holy Book, and listening to it. It is believed by Sikhs to be the living embodiment of truth. I don’t wish to imply any disrespect to the Sikh religion, what is contained within the Granthi is worth listening to and living by – but that is not how we as Christians are supposed to relate to our holy Scriptures. I think it is fitting that the main service is many Christian Churches is the Eucharist, which draws us towards an understanding of the word of God which is living and active – encountered in one another and in bread and wine – made real and solid, not simply in words on a page but in flesh and blood.
We are those who follow Christ, the living Word. In the Bible we are given stories, ideas, explorations, struggles, – but we are not called to worship the Bible. The response of many Christians to a difficult issue is ‘the Bible says’ – as they pull out a verse which is often out of context and relates to a different culture, a different era, a different world to where we are today.
In the Second letter to Timothy that we have been following over the past weeks in our service, chapter 3 verse 16 says, as I spoke on last week, ‘All Scripture is inspired by God’. But what exactly does that mean? Well if you read some other translations of the Bible, or even go back to the original language of the New Testament, Greek, you will find that the word ‘inspired’ means something like ‘God breathed’ – all Scripture is ‘God breathed’.
For Jews and Christians living about the time that this was read there was an idea that Scripture was living and active. There were many many books that came within the understanding of Scripture – so when the writer of this letter to Timothy talks of Scripture he is not talking about the Old Testament as we know it, and the New Testament has not even begun to appear yet, except as letters to Churches. The writer of this letter is talking about the tradition of Scripture – the books of law and prophets and the Jewish books that seek to interpret the law and the prophets. And the Jewish people had no concept of gathering all the scrolls together and making one definitive list, that did not happen until well after the time of the New Testament.
This principle is one that we have lost. We have encapsulated Scripture and claim that it is a solid block that cannot be tampered with. We forget that the Bible isn’t a book, it’s a library, with many different textures and stories woven together. Many Christian claim to know what it means and to use their interpretation to guide them throughout their life – but without recognising that they see Scripture through very different eyes from the ones who wrote and collated it so many years ago.
I believe that Scripture is living and active. That it leads us beyond itself to the God who is behind it all. I believe that we can use Scripture to guide us and teach us, to lead us into truth. But I do not believe that we do so by simple picking it up, saying ‘Oh, the Bible says this or this’ and then applying that straight to our lives. No I have more reverence for the Bible than that.
The Bible is a collection of thoughts, some of them good, some bad, that lead us to knowledge of God and a relationship to Jesus Christ. Reading the Bible should not give us a nice cosy feeling that we have the truth all sorted out – rather it should disturb us, and shake us from sleep, it should be like a slap in the face that calls us to follow Christ more faithfully.
You see, the Bible often does not have answers to every question we have. As a minister I find myself asking many questions – both about my faith and about God. This is especially the case as I wonder about the way life is going to change for Jo and I when our baby is born in the near future. It’s also the case every time I officiate at a funeral, or speak to someone of their difficulties in life. And the Bible does not give me a definitive answer to questions such as why things happen, instead the Bible offers me the understanding that God is alongside us in life and in death, in the times we feel empty and alone, in the times we feel elated.
Look at the Psalms, for instance, the ‘Theology’ in some of them is terrible and does not fit well with the Christian message – The Psalmist talks of death being the absolute end, that no one who dies will ever be able to praise or see God. In the light of the resurrection of Christ, however, and the understanding that has grown up since then we believe that God offers us life eternally, in all its fullness. But though the Psalms may be incomplete they do offer us a picture of how we might be honest before God. In this way they are inspired, they allow us to be ourselves. In one Psalm the writer says of the Babylonians ‘blessed is the one who dashes your children’s heads upon the rocks’. A sickening image, and one which we would in no way ascribe to, but it gives us an idea of how to be honest before God, not to hold back our anger, our fear, our feelings.
And so Scripture offers us stories, ideas. As a whole it gives us ‘The Story of Faith’ from a perspective of the Christian Church. And it allows us to join in that story, to tell it ourselves, to make it our own story and to add our own stories to it. What I am saying is that I don’t think we should just take Scripture as it is – we must acknowledge that we are in a process of interpreting scripture. Scripture is living and active, and that means that we have to work at discerning the truth beyond the words.
To truly engage with Scripture takes work, it takes study, prayer and meditation. We need the eyes of faith in order to see its truth, we need the Holy Spirit to guide us. We need to be open to new ideas, to be willing to admit we were wrong, to move on and be shaken by God speaking through the Scriptures.
The problem often with the way in which we read scripture in Church is that it all sounds the same, we have short passages read out of context and even the best preacher (and I don’t count myself in that number) can only give so much background to each Biblical passage week by week. We need to look at Scripture ourselves, to read it, perhaps with the aid of Bible notes, day by day. Not to read it for the sake of reading the Bible, but to delve into this wonderful feast of faith that is the Bible. Last Sunday I got the small group that came to Team Evening Worship to consider the different types of writing that our Bible contains – the styles of writing, which we call Genres, within the Bible. We came up with quite a long list – and if we were advertising it in the way in which movies are advertised then some gravelly American voice would have their work cut out ‘War, romance, poetry, story, parable, myth, history, biography, faith, letter’ all of this kind of writing and so much more make up our Bibles, and just asking ourselves as we read ‘what type of writing is this, and where did it come from’ can offer us insight into the depth and variety of our Scriptural diet.
We should take time to read the bits we don’t like, not just the bits we do, we should struggle with the food laws in Deuteronomy, or a huge wedge of genealogy every now and then in order to ask ‘why is this here’ and ‘what can I learn from this’, or the question that I was taught to ask at every point of my training ‘where is God in all this?’ This is not an approach that fits well with taking Scripture as a solid block, instead it is a process of learning, of seeing where scripture leads us, of being unafraid to ask difficult questions and not expect easy answers. I pray that we will all grapple with Scripture and allow it to grapple with us. Amen.