Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 10 December 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Reading: Romans 15.1-13
“Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures.” Romans 15.4
Our reading from Romans is the same as that used in the Prayer Book’s Eucharistic lectionary. It inspired Archbishop Cranmer’s Collect for this Sunday in the Prayer Book, too, and the popular name for the day, “Bible Sunday.”
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.
The Collect teaches us how to set about reading the scriptures. We must, first of all “hear” them. When Cranmer wrote the prayer, this was a simple necessity, as it had been throughout Christian history, because most people were illiterate. They could not read the scriptures, they could only hear them.
One of the reasons Cranmer radically stripped down the office, reducing the number of canticles to a handful and eliminating antiphons and responsories, was because the majority of the people for whom this book was intended would need to learn their parts by heart because they could not read them from a book.
You will notice that we do not print the readings in orders of service here. This is not just a mean-minded or even a green-minded attempt to save paper. It springs from a recognition that hearing something read is a different experience, a more direct one, to reading it on the page. It is also a corporate one rather than a group of separate individuals each with their nose in a book or leaflet. The primary way the Church hears and reads scripture is as a community.
When the Gospel Book is carried into the midst of the congregation for the proclamation, the chanting, of the Gospel at High Mass, we stand and face towards it because we have a deep sense that in this action Jesus speaks directly to us.
The actor David Suchet recently read the whole of Mark’s Gospel in St. Paul’s Cathedral. In doing this, he was following another actor, Alec McCowen, who toured the country doing this almost 40 years ago. A group of us from our parish in Fife went to hear him do it in the Adam Smith Centre in Kirkcaldy. There is a value in reading the whole of a book through in one go; just to get the feel of it. At Sunday Mass this year we will be reading through St. Mark, section by section, but it does not take long to read the whole thing and this helps us see individual passages as parts of the whole.
We are, of course, also to read them and the great majority of us are able to do so. One of the driving forces in increasing literacy after the Reformation, was peoples’ desire to be able to read the Scriptures in their own language. The invention of printing had taken both scriptures and liturgy outside the confines of monastery and university. Now each of us can have our own copy of the scriptures at little cost; we can even download them to read on our phones.
What do we mean by “read?” What does the Collect mean by it? It is not the kind of speed-reading which many of us engage in – eyes darting across the page of a newspaper or computer screen, seeking information we need or something to catch our eye.
Nor is it like many of the books we might read once, on holiday perhaps, and then discard. We return to the scriptures again and again. It is more like reading poetry than prose. It requires careful attention to rhythm and sound if we are to discover the meaning hidden in its depths. We often use the word “learn” to mean “memorize”, and that is something of a lost art these days – but it is one which we might cultivate.
The Bible is not a textbook from which we might extract facts about God so that we can pass an exam or be the winning team in “Seminary Challenge.” We should take note of what scholars and commentators can teach us about the passages we hear or read. They can help us to understand the meaning of words in Hebrew or Greek, and the contexts in which they were spoken or written; lest we misinterpret them.
We read the scriptures properly and profitably when we do so slowly and attentively, going over and over what we read, reading it out loud; using our imaginations to place us in the scene; asking ourselves:
- What is this passage saying?
- What is it saying to me?
- What must I now do about it?
For scripture, hearing is almost the same as obeying. God’s word is creative and imperative. God speaks and we must obey.
We read the scriptures in such a way as to “inwardly digest them,” so that like the food we eat they become part of us and we of them.
I took the liberty, as the alert among you might have noticed, of starting the lesson at the beginning of the chapter, rather than at verse 4, as both Prayer Book and Common Worship Lectionaries do.
This is because, those words which I took for my text refer not just to the group of verses from the Old Testament which Paul quotes near the end, but also to his citation of Psalm 69 which immediately precedes it.
Our reading falls into two sections which have the same pattern. Each begins with an exhortation about how Christians are to behave:
- “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to edify him.”
- “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
This is then grounded in the action of Christ and in scripture:
“The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me,” from Psalm 69 in the first, and for the second, the four citations from the psalms, the law and the prophets, which speak of the Gentiles joining Jews in the praise of God.
Each then concludes with a prayer of blessing.
- May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In our service this evening, we have heard God speaking to us in the Scriptures, calling us to act and live in a way which is rooted in the life of the Christ who has welcomed us and who calls us to welcome others. In a few moments, as we kneel before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we will pray for and receive his blessing for that life of community in joy, peace and hope, “by the power of the Holy Spirit.”