Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 8 September 2019
TRINITY 12, 2019 EVENSONG
Readings: Isaiah 43.14-44.5; John 5.30-47
“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.”
Picking up what Fr. Michael was saying this morning about getting rid of possessions: as some of you know, I am down-sizing my library in readiness for leaving All Saints. The shelves in my study are being combed through to identify what I will need to keep for my continuing ministry, and what can go. Will I ever read, or need to read that again? If you are around on Friday evening you will see boxes of those not needed on the next stage of my journey being loaded into the back of Richard Everton’s car so that he can transport them to Mucknell Abbey for the monastery library.
The shelves which have been least thinned out are probably those containing biblical commentaries, although some have not stood the test of time. One volume which will survive the cull, although many might consider it rather dated, is Archbishop William Temple’s “Readings in St. John’s Gospel.”
I took it out to see what he had to say about tonight’s passage. He speaks of how that word “search” suggests a prying into something – like that of those who suppose that God has hidden the chronology of history in the numbers given in the book of Daniel and Revelation. People claim to be able to decode these numbers and so predict when the world will end. This is an obsession as common in our day as it was in Temple’s. So far, as you may have noticed, they have consistently got their sums wrong, but this does not stop them trying.
Such a searching, he says, comes from a supposition that in the scripture we have eternal life. So, we have, but so much hangs on the single word “in.” It is not the letters and words themselves which are the source of eternal life, says Jesus in St. John’s Gospel, but the one they bear witness to; the one who is the Word and form of God.
Temple does not say that we should not study scripture; quite the opposite. We cannot study it too diligently, if we are looking in the right way. We know that in the scriptures we have a variety of forms of writing, poetry and prose, history and law, parables and proverbs and visions. They come from different authors and editors; produced in different historical periods and cultural contexts; they are written in ancient languages – and in the case of the Gospels, not the one which Jesus would have spoken. We know that translation from one language to another is not always simple and straightforward. Words often have layers and varieties of meaning and that the cultures which produce them and which they in turn shape, evolve over time. If we are to interpret the scriptures aright – or at least to avoid interpreting them wrongly – then we need – and those whose task is to teach and preach in the church need- to know something of these things. We need the work of scholars who labour away at the meaning of words and the significance of contexts.
Think back to today’s Gospel at Mass (Luke 14.25-33) in which we heard Jesus say, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Is Jesus really suggesting that we must hate our families? Well, Jesus spoke and Luke wrote, in a time when the decision to follow Jesus could lead to expulsion from the family unit – for most people the only support system they had – or even to violence and betrayal. Sometime when people of an evangelical turn of mind speak rather glibly about converting Muslims, I ask them if they have ever thought about what the consequences for such converts might be in terms of the families and communities which they would have to leave.
And, there have been and are dangerous sects which distort this teaching in order to separate vulnerable people from their families –deliberately creating and encouraging hostility to their natural families in order to lock them into a new family. There was a heart-breaking piece on television the other day about a young woman lured into one such group and then murdered by a fellow-member. The item included footage, which I assume her distressed relatives had seen and heard, of her declaring that her new family was far better than anything she had ever known before.
All the gospels, and not least St. John’s, are written in the light of the resurrection. They are not simply records of the earthly historical life of Jesus. They were written to be heard and read in the context of a Church which believed that Christ was not simply a figure, however noble and interesting, in the past, – but the living Lord of the Church – that he was and is present in it and the world through the Spirit who brings to mind all that he has said and done and lead his Church into all truth. Luke has the risen Jesus opening the scriptures of the Old Testament as witnessing to him.
Many of those of a fundamentalist, or even just a conservative turn of mind are suspicious of the work of biblical scholars and there is some justification for this. Over the last couple of centuries, critical scholarship has increasingly taken place not in the Church but in the universities. As these have become increasingly secular institutions, to justify their presence biblical scholars have had to adopt the criteria and methods of study, analysis, research which are common to the academic world. This has meant that they have sometimes, though not always, become rather detached from the worshipping life of the Church.
Professor Richard Hays, himself a distinguished American academic biblical scholar, suggested some years ago that part of the problem with many academic biblical scholars, was that they were in fact Sadducees: that is, like those conservative Jewish priests, they did not believe in the resurrection. They treated the biblical writings in the same way as their equivalents in the classics department would treat those of Homer or Virgil: as the words of a long-dead figure.
But that is not the way the Church reads scripture. We do not read the Bible to discover information about Jesus or Paul, or ancient religion, interesting as these may or may not be.
We read scripture because we do believe in the resurrection; and that it is both a witness to the risen Lord and the means by which he continues to speak to us; to call and challenge us to follow him in his work of reconciling the world; inviting us to share in eternal life, that is the life of God.
The primary context in which the Church has always read and listened to scripture is not the classroom or the bible study group, but in its liturgy – in worship offered to the Father, through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
When I was a parish priest in Edinburgh, someone who had discovered our church was open but did not approve of what he had found began putting notes through the Rectory door complaining of our unbiblical ways. In one he disclosed that he was the pastor of the “Open Bible Baptist Church”, so I wrote to him and said that we too were an open Bible church and listed the diet of psalms, canticles and readings from scripture we had gone through in that single day. I invited him to come and see me to discuss what was biblical. Answer came there none.
From time to time, ordination candidates from more evangelical traditions are sent to us to broaden their experience of church. They join us for the daily office and eucharist. On more than one occasion a question about how they are finding it elicits the surprised response that: “it’s mostly from the Bible, isn’t it?”
The ongoing round of Bible reading in our worship works to soak us in scripture and its story of God’s dealings with humankind. But just as scripture is many-voiced, so we need more than one approach to hearing its voices; to receiving the words which bear witness of the one who is the Word of God.
The Church is also rediscovering the role of personal prayer in our reception of Scripture – through methods like the monastic practice of lectio divina or sacred reading, a slow, ruminative chewing over of a word or passage; or imaginative meditation like that of the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola -in which we place ourselves within a passage or scene to hear what Jesus might be saying to us about himself and about us; how we are being asked to respond – what we are to do.
In the word read and heard, preached and expounded, studied and reflected on; both as community and individuals we find ourselves not so much searching the scriptures but those scripture searching us; revealing us to ourselves as we really are – but also giving us a vision of what we are meant to be – as God’s beloved children – made in the image of Jesus Christ whose forgiving and healing grace can transform us into that love which is eternal life.