Sermon for Sunday July 15th – Bible Sunday
2 Ki 22
“Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly”
Well today is Bible Sunday, or at least it is here 🙂 I have to say I was slightly taken aback when I discovered this, so used was I to having Bible Sunday as the Second in Advent and the words of Cranmers collect ringing in my ears in the run up to Christmas “BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.” But disoriented as I am, I still think that it is more than worthwhile taking time to consider the place of the Bible in the church and in our faith as Christians.
And that place is not in the least insignificant – indeed I was glad to discover that St John’s was one of those increasingly rare churches where all the set scriptures were read at services, including the Old Testament, given that the move, even in those churches which call themselves ‘Bible believing’ churches is towards less and less Scripture in services. And when the Vicar reinstituted the Psalm at the morning service he wasn’t met with uproar at ‘yet more Bible’ 🙂 (Of course that could be because everyone here is just extremely nice and hospitable 🙂 ) Yet Christian faith has always been a faith rooted in Scripture. In the Koran, the Christians along with the Jews are set apart as ‘People of the Book’ – except of course that can give a false impression.
For we are very used to holding Books, Having Books. The invention of the Printing Press led to a very rapid change in the way that The Bible was perceived, because for the first time in human history, for the first time in the 3000 year old Judaeo-Christian tradition, it became possible for people to ‘have their own bible’. Although the zeal of the infant church saw a huge explosion in the publication of Books – which is why we have so many thousands of fragments of scripture, indeed whole books of the Bible from very early times – this was as nothing compared with what happened post Gutenburg, a publishing phenomon the like of which the world has never seen and even to this day, the Bible is the most widely published of all books by orders of magnitude, so that the BIble may be put into people’s hands . . .
But therein in a sense lies a supreme irony, for it could well be argued that that move was the one which led so many people to dismiss the Bible and its significance. Poring over it for themselves many began to pronounce judgement upon it – it didn’t DO as a Holy Book. It was full of unpleasant things that they didn’t much like – the God who was portrayed in its pages seemed rather uncultured and at times capricious – or at least to their eyes. And this practise continues to this day. I remember one of my Vicars in my early years pronouncing from the pulpit that at Theological college he and his fellow students had spent much time dismissing ever increasing parts of the Bible – until as he said they had reduced all that was of any worth to a few verses in St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians – That, they had decided, was authentic Christian faith. And of course it must be said that there are many many more who have a negative view of the bible that is at best second hand. Their opinions are just those thye have absorbed from those around them – like the perpetual old saw about ‘The God of the Old Testament’, being a God you wouldn’t want to meet compared with the God of the New – who was all sweetness and light, revealed to us in Jesus – that fluffy bunny Jesus of my childhood Sunday school who always seemed to be wearing a white dress and surrounded by woodland creatures – or perhaps I’m getting him mixed up with a Disney movie. It was a long time ago :). As an Jewish rabbi once said – exasperated by his liberal Christian friends – the person who talks more about hellfire than anyone else in the Bible is actually Jesus himself. And so of course there have also been those, highly influential in many circles today, who want even to rewrite the Biblical picture of Christ. Separating out the Jesus of the Bible from the sort of Jesus we wanted – a pietistic Jesus. If you were a spiritual person you could avoid all the talk about sending the goats who didn’t feed the hungry to hell, or everlasting damnation as the Greek puts it – and if you were a nice liberal person you could ignore all the stuff about the need for repentance and being born again and taking up your cross . . . in other words you made up a Jesus to suit you. Rather like Narcissus looking into the water, all too often we looked into the BIble and saw our own reflection staring back at us. The Jesus who thinks like I do. The rather simplistic question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ being rather simply answered – he’d do what my best self would do. In other words we are the centre of it all. We come to the bible with our views – our questions. We judge it according to the former and find it fails us with the latter.
But, as I have suggested, that attitude came about in many regards because the BIble was mass printed and therefore became an object of study for all, ‘you in your small corner and I in mine’ as the old children’s song goes. And Reading it and Alone is precisely not how we should come to the Scriptures. For they were written not primarily to us as individuals but as a people, and not to be read in our heads, but Heard.
For for most of human history the BIble was not read at all. The JEwsih Scriptures were kept on huge scrolls in the synagogue and the early Christian Scriptures followed in suit although they did herald the beginning of what we would call a book. They were the possession of the community – say the Church in Collossae to whom St PAul wrote, and they were copied for wider distribution, but to own books was to show yourself wealthy. As one Father of the church rebuked another – you have taken the bread from the mouths of many poor ‘for he saw he had many books’ – and Hearing is a different thing to reading. FOr a start to hear is something that happens in that dimension of time we call Kairos. It happens – i was sat in church and I heard . . . Much like St Augustine in the story of his conversion heard the word of Scripture being recited by children in a garden. Yes the words they spoke were ‘Take it and Read’, But augustine’s approach did not come anywhere near study at the outset – rather hearing those words he opened a Bible to where it fell open and read the first words presented there ROmans 13:13-14 let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. Well Given that Augustine had been making more than amplpe provision for the flesh – these words woke him up! He heard and obeyed. Indeed that is the sense in which Scripture is given, that we hear and respond. Again St Anthony of Egypt – who heard one day the words ‘Sell your possessions and give to the poor and you wil have treasure in heaven and follow me” – Well St Anthony did just that and unbeknownst to him was a starting point for the preservation of the faith through the Dark Ages, his actions leading in time to the founding of the monastic movement – which amongst other things was responsible for keeping the Bible as a public possession.
All of them revealing that the Word of God was meant to be heard – as Creation responded to the Voice of God – so we too the Creatures were created to respond to God speaking to us through the scriptures – to hear and to obey. The Word is Given that we might respond, and the word Obedience means ‘to have Heard’. Jesus in his teaching makes this very plain – the one who builds his house on the rock is the one who hears these words of mine and acts on them’. Now imagine how different it is if on the one hand we hear the Scripture say but once a week as we gather for worship – that is an Instant, a moment – what do we do? Well me may of course forget, but then we may not, we may respond. What the word does not allow is that we will go away and think ‘Shall I respond to this word or not?’ for that is to be as it were Master of the Word.
So like King Josiah – the young King – he is in the midst of a great Temple rebuilding project when if you like the Bible is found – quite possibly the book of Deuteronomy The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.’ When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, ‘Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the Lord.’ Shaphan the secretary informed the king, ‘The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.’ Shaphan then read it aloud to the king.
When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, ‘Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.’ In the Instant the rebuilding of the Temple grinds to a halt – God has spoken – The Word has gone forth. Josiah realises that he must respond.
It seems to me that in this age when so many have bibles and supposedly read them, the Response that the Word calls for is far more muted than in times past when people were like the young King Josiah cut to the heart by the Word. It is worth asking, when did we last change our ways because of what we read in the Scriptures or heard in church?
But that last point – in church brings me to the second way in which ‘having our own BIbles’ distorts how the word is received. The printing press in putting the bibles into everyones hands also led in no small part to the individualism of our age, where every person became there own authority. It is no small surprise that Protestantism is so phenomenally fractured as each person comes up with their own interpretation and so creates their own Church – ultimately the church of the alone, the church of the one.
When St Paul counsels the Colossians ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’ he is asking us to ponder the word – chew it – inwardly digest it as the collect has it – but together. Perhaps the Greatest and most significant loss in translating the bIble into English, and this is a modern problem for older forms of English did not suffer this lack, is that in the Scriptures, the word You, is almost always Plural, throughout the Scriptures. That we are addressed Primarily as the People of God through the Scriptures – so it is much better to render ‘Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly’ as ‘Let it dwell among you richly’ as is clear from the whole context – teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. The Word is given to the Church – The Word of God Written Gathers and indeed constitutes the Church – we are a people shaped and formed by this Amazing narrative. It shapes our liturgy and it is given to shape our common life together as do these words of St Paul As God’s chosen ones, As his people holy and beloved, Declared Holy by his Word – not by our actions – it is all gift clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. There is no harmony singing alone – All of it about our Common life – what is the command to Love if it is not to do with our Common life – but how frequently in our self centered age it has all become about loving ourselves And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. HEaring the Word of God together – we become the Peaceful community. The Peace of Christ is not some existential feeling – rather it is the product of his word going forth into the hearts and minds of his people, who are called to the mutual forebearance, foregiveness and Love that creates the Peace of Christ.
We are to Hear the words of the Bible and that together. Perhaps there is no more significant way in which we can grow and develop in our common life as the people of God than by together hearing the Word and responding to it, as His people have done all through the ages