Bible Sunday, 25th October 2015
Sermon by Fr James Heard on Bible Sunday, 25th October 2015
Words, words, words. Psychologists tell us that, in a soundbite age, at any one time we can only take in 18 words, tops. And I’ve just preached 23!
I’ve no idea how many words there are in the Bible. Words, words, words – words in the Bible, words in the liturgy, words in hymns, words in prayers. Its no wonder some Anglicans head to The Quakers to get a bit of space, to be silent in a community. We often say, ‘This is the Word of the Lord’ after bible readings - and to be honest I find it difficult to make sense of what that means. Does it mean God said it, or some handy scribe jotted down the ip-sis-si-ma verba, the actual words of divine speech, a fax or text message (a rather long text message!) from heaven.
For instance, in today’s letter to Timothy, St Paul writes, ‘All scripture is inspired by God’. The Greek version put it like this: ‘All scripture is God-breathed’ (θεόπνευστος). Really? Is of it truly inspired? And what might that mean?
A couple of weeks ago Margaret spoke movingly and honestly about how she had to fight the urge against throwing the Bible against the wall when preparing her sermon. It’s on the website if you want to read it and I would encourage you to do so.
Margaret described how her newborn son, conceived after years of barren waiting, died shortly after birth. So to read the verses, ‘don’t worry! Rejoice! Isn’t God great? You have everything you need – enough and more than enough!’
Margaret responded: ‘I could throw this Bible against the wall and walk away, angry with God. I could do that. I could just leave it there.’ But instead she encouraged us to dig deeper, to look a little closer. Because the Bible doesn’t say that death and sadness won’t come. But rather that death and sadness aren’t the end of the story.
Margaret response was thoughtful. It was mature. But when many people read the Bible, it’s not too difficult to see how it might be a stumbling block.
So today, on Bible Sunday, we have the chance to reflect upon the Bible. To start with, I am deeply convinced that the Bible shows us Christians - indeed all people - the way to our fullest humanity. To be the sort of people and community that flourishes, that lives life to the full. I believe the Bible teaches us that. But I also think that we show enormous disrespect to the Bible when we take it literally, at face value, and fail to ask hard questions, fail to subject it to scrutiny and analysis. And it’s worth recognising what a radically different world that hearers of the Bible lived in to ours.
The evangelical writer Robin Parry focuses on this difference in his recent book entitled The Biblical Cosmos. He describes how important it is to recognize the changed landscape. Because when we read Scripture its easy to imagine that the world inhabited by the Bible’s characters was much the same as our own. But the biblical world is an ancient world with a flat earth that stands at the center of the cosmos, and with a vast ocean in the sky, chaos dragons, mystical mountains, demonic deserts. Those in the biblical cosmos believed in an underground zone for the dead, they believed that stars were sentient beings. And if you travel upwards and through the doors in the solid dome of the sky, you would discover God’s heaven – the heart of the universe. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the Bible. It’s a radically different world from our modern scientific understanding of the universe. But Robin Parry doesn’t then dismiss the Bible as a useless relic. Instead he digs deeper to shows how the Bible is still revelatory and can speak God’s word afresh into our own modern worlds. Like Margaret, he encourages us to dig deeper.
And what about the content of the Bible? The very notion of The Bible implies something it is not. Look at this – it’s a book – a book between two stiff covers. The print is the same all the way through. It’s divided into two sections, 66 books, goodness knows how many chapters and millions of verses. Some stories, like creation, appear in it twice, at least; some Gospel incidents, three even four times (with interesting variations). Some sections, like Isaiah, have been pressed into one book, under one name. But we know there were at least three authors over a period far longer than any man’s life span.
We do the Bible a disservice when we fail to take it sufficiently seriously to analyse, check and critique it. If we do actually spend time reading it we’ll discover that it contains hugely different types of writing: law, story, poetry, erotic love songs, prophecy, history, folklore and homely proverbs, letters and dreams. It was written in at least three languages. We can determine that its contents were compiled, edited, redacted, re-edited, over at least 1000 years and probably more. We call it The Bible, singular, but its title in Hebrew and Greek, its two major languages, is not singular. In Greek, it’s simply Ta Biblia (τὰ βιβλία) – the Books.
For despite its seeming unity and uniformity, it is in fact a massively diverse library of thought, teaching, reflection, praise and saga. It’s easy to assume that, like a Brighton Rock, it’s same all the way through. And it patently isn’t.
The notion that it might be literally true, is a very recent idea. It’s a 19th century invention, a post enlightenment reaction. No theologian in the first 1800 years of the church would ever have thought that. It was an absurd defensive position in the face of the growing scientific revolution that challenged a superficial reading of scripture. Again, dig deeper, look closer.
So what do we do with the Scriptures, on this Bible Sunday? Well, please don’t stop reading it – because it is ‘Our inspiration and Guide’. It roots us in the Christian Story, pondering, reflecting, informing our living and thinking. Try reading whole stories – the sagas, Joseph, the Exodus. Read a whole Gospel: Mark will take you about one episode of Downton Abbey to read. For if you do, I guarantee you will make new connections, gain new insights, read and hear things differently in future. Come to our Bible study group every other Wednesday.
Whilst digging deeper is important, it the Bible isn’t primarily about analysing, critiquing, asking who wrote it, when, what the key themes are. Those are important questions. But the purpose of reading is to nourish us our Christian pilgrimage.
There is in the monastic discipline called lectio Divina, which I’m sure many of you will have heard of and perhaps used. It encourages a different more imaginative reading of the scriptures. Benedictine tradition requires at least two hours of it every day. The idea is that every member of the community should read, slowly, contemplatively a piece of the scriptures entering, literally, into the scene, visualizing themselves beside Moses on Sinai, or in the audience as Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount. Such an approach means that reading scripture is not a cerebral study of a historical event, but a contemporary realizing my place in these scriptural encounters between God and humanity. St Ignatius even encouraged his hearers to imagine they were Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross or Mary Magdalene in the Garden. Imagine yourself in the scriptures.
Lastly, reading the Bible is to meant to transform us, which is what A.N. Wilson suggests is The Book of the People. The Bible is ‘not proved or disproved by a skeptic poring over its pages in a study. Rather, it is enacted when people such as Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu are enflamed by it.’
The Scriptures, are not words, verses chapters and books, but means of hearing and seeing, imagining and knowing, that we belong to God and can know how to live and love like him.
A. N. Wilson, The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible
Robin Parry, The Biblical Cosmos
Rupert Jeffcoat, 23.10.11