Bible Sunday - the Gift of Scripture

A sermon preached by Fr Peter Wolton on 26 October in the United Benefice

As we hear your word today Lord, may we have open ears to hear, and open hearts to receive so that it may dwell in each one of us richly. Amen.

Today is Bible Sunday when we give thanks for the gift of the Bible and the important place it has in our Christian lives and in the life of this country.

Let me give you two examples of the Bible in our lives:

The First, a former Prime Minister speaking on the radio in 1987:
“My Christian upbringing meant I knew the Bible and what greater literature could you find than the King James Version of the Bible. I am sure it has influenced me in the use of language. I still read the Bible because it contains very great thoughtfulness. Indeed I took the title of my autobiography from the Book of Ecclesiastes.”

The speaker was Sir James Callaghan and the title of his memoirs “Time and Chance” comes from Ecclesiastes Chapter 9

Sir James was speaking on Desert Island Disks where, as we know, castaways are supplied with three books, one of their choice, a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare and, you won’t need reminding, the Bible.

My second example is the criminal justice system.

A fortnight ago I was privileged to do jury service. Before going into court, the jurors were asked how we wished to take the jurors oath, to affirm or to take an oath by placing a hand on the Bible.  All twelve jurors used the Bible, not a bad result for a supposedly post Christian society.
Today’s Bible Sunday collect, in its way, says everything that needs to be said about accessibility to God. Access comes through the Word of Scripture and through the Word made Flesh, the gift of his Son. It is accessibility to the Word, both in the past and also today, that I would like us to focus on today.

Let us start by remembering our debt to our ancestors in faith who, inspired by the Spirit, wrote scripture, assembled it into books, who invented printing, and translated it into languages we can understand.

Our Old Testament reading from Nehemiah tells of Ezra, opening the book of the law and together with others, he reads and interprets the law of God.

This reminds us that in those days, few people could read. And in the case of the long history of England, we  have also had a large majority of people being unable to read and thus relying on priests to interpret and pass on the scripture by word of mouth.

Making the Bible accessible was a major part of the Reformation. Earlier this month, the Church of England commemorated the life and martyrdom of William Tyndale, translator of the Scriptures. He was born in 1494 and arrested in exile in 1535 on charges of heresy for translating parts of the Bible into English. He was imprisoned in Brussels and on 6th October 1536, first strangled and then burnt at the stake.

The work of keeping the flame of scripture alive and intelligible was often at great personal cost, yet it is people like Tyndale who have guided us to understand God’s mission to the word. Here he is writing in 1526:

“Note the difference of the law and the Gospel. The one asketh and requireth, the other pardoneth and forgiveth. The one threateneth (that’s the law); the other(the Gospel) promiseth all good things to them that set their trust in Christ only. The Gospel signifieth glad tidings, and is nothing but the promises of good things.”

The promises of good things.

The world can be viewed as a difficult and dangerous place. But seen though the Gospel, we have every reason to be optimistic.  Why? Because Christ will transfigure, restore, redeem, and heal the brokenness of ourselves and the world.

Which leads me onto today’s reading from Colossians – St. Paul at his most inspiring. He commands us to:

“Clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness and humility meekness and patience…. to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly.. and in whatever we do, to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

It is through our possession of the Bible that we receive the gift of who Jesus is and what is meant by “in the name of Lord Jesus.”

I referred earlier to making the Bible accessible today.

Now, can I ask you to imagine yourselves in a country, or circumstances where you are denied access to the Bible, or do not yet know the gift of Christ.

It is a dispiriting thought.

Fortunately there are people and organisations who are working to address this, often with amazing results.

I want to tell you a story. In 1980, I visited Canton (modern day Guangzhou Gwangjo) in China. As I flew into the city, I saw the twin spires of a huge church. The next day was a Sunday. I wanted to visit it but I was under time pressure because I had to get a train at 9.30. At dawn, to get my bearings, I stood on the roof of the hotel and saw the distant tips of the spires over the roof tops. I slipped out of the hotel and walked through empty streets to the church. When I got there, to my amazement, I found the door was open, so in the half light I entered the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, one of the largest Gothic buildings in the world. And there in a side chapel, I encountered an elderly priest. He told me a year or so before when he was in a prison camp, he was suddenly informed that he could return to Canton and re-open his church.

In 1980 it is estimated there were 400,000 Christians in China. At that time, everyone was clothed in the blue Mao suits. Today there are over 40 million Chinese Christians, who having accepted the teaching of St Paul to the Colossians, have exchanged their Mao suits and clothed themselves in Christ.
The largest bible printing press in the world is in China. The Amity Press is a joint venture with the world’s United Bible Societies, including the UK’s Bible Society ( Amity can print one bible every second and since its founding in the late 1980s has produced over 120 million bibles. The largest number produced by language is Mandarin. Amity cannot cope with demand.  The growth of faith and bible ownership goes hand in hand.

The Bible Society has a number of programmes, making the Bible accessible both in the UK and overseas through translation and distribution, and in countries as varied as Cambodia and Ukraine.
But there is still much to be done. Do you know how many languages still haven’t got a word of the Bible? The number’s huge. There are some 7,100 languages in the world today. And there are just 511 (including English) that have a full translation of the Bible. Not very many, is it? So do have a look at the Bible Society’s website and consider about how you can support them. And pray for all missionaries and teachers who work to make the word of God accessible.

Finally, let us give thanks for the gift of the Bible and how we are able to worship in freedom. We pray also that we may take the opportunities provided both by our parish bible study programmes and in our daily lives to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the holy scriptures and to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Holland Park Benefice