Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass the Last Sunday after Trinity (Bible Sunday) 2014

Leviticus 19.1-2,15-18
1 Thessalonians 2.1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Today, the last Sunday after Trinity, is also known as Bible Sunday. It’s a celebration, but of what? How should we as Christians read and use the Bible?

There’s an old story of a preacher who was lost for inspiration, so the preacher thought, well, all the Bible is the word of God, so it doesn’t matter which bit I use. I’ll just pick something at random and preach on that. So the preacher flipped through the Bible and turned up Matthew 27.5: “Judas went and hanged himself.” Oh dear, that can’t be right, so the preacher did it again. And got Luke 10.37: “Go and do thou likewise.”

There are two opposite errors to avoid in our approach to the Bible. The first is to say that the Bible is just an ancient text of its own time and context and it has no more significance than any other old book. We can read the bits we happen to like if we want to, but we can leave the rest.

The second error is to treat the Bible as a magic book which we can just open and read off the page the answer to whatever problem we have, without any kind of process or engagement.

Neither of those approaches engages seriously with the text as the Church has received and understood it. So, to learn how to read the Bible, let us see how Jesus reads the Bible, in today’s Gospel reading. When he is asked a question to test him, “which is the greatest commandment?”, he quotes from Deuteronomy, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone; you shall love the Lord your God”. And he adds to it the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself from Leviticus that we heard this morning.

For Jesus the most important thing in the Bible is that it speaks to us of God, and of love. Now if Israel is commanded to love God, this presupposes that God loves Israel. But this is a demanding love. It is a love that tells us the truth about ourselves, and shows us the distance between where we are and where the love of God would have us be.

Israel would not have needed a command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” if it had already been doing so. Likewise the command to love our neighbour, and the practical ways in which that is to be expressed, are needed because human beings tend to forget that that is how we are meant to live.

The Bible constantly presents to us both the love and holiness of God, and the uncomfortable truth that humanity fails to love and fails to be holy. The Old Testament scriptures show this again and again in the history of Israel, who are always going astray after other gods and acting unjustly, and yet are called back by God and return to him yet again.

So this is one thing the Bible does. By presenting us with God’s goodness, it frees us from the illusion of our own goodness and self-sufficiency. When we look in the mirror of our own pride and vanity we see an illusory image that tells us that all is fine. And how destructive it is trying to maintain that illusion. But the Bible holds up to us an undistorting mirror in which we can learn to see ourselves as God sees us. That can be deeply uncomfortable, but it is necessary if we are to learn that we are loved as God loves us.

The second thing Jesus teaches us about the Bible today is to read it the right way round.

Jesus asks the Pharisees, ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ The Pharisees read the Bible as meaning that the Messiah must be the son of David. So therefore they look for a Messiah who fits that mould. Do the genealogy first and you can work out who the candidates are. But Jesus says that’s the wrong way round. Start with the Messiah, who is before you, and from him learn what the scriptures mean.

This is what the Church has done from the resurrection onwards. Like the disciples at Emmaus, we are walking with Jesus, risen from the dead, as he opens the scriptures to us. Throughout the ministry of Jesus the disciples had failed to understand that the Messiah must suffer. But once you believe that the victim risen from the dead is actually the Messiah, then you can go back and read the scriptures in that light, and read them truly for the first time.

This brings us back to something that is implied in Jesus’ quotation from Deuteronomy. “Hear, O Israel.” It is the community that reads the Bible. The Church Jesus called and formed, like Israel, is the community that reads and is formed by the scriptures. The book and the community go together.

The Bible did not float down from heaven on a cloud. It has human authors, who were part of that community of faith. They were moved by the Spirit of God, as Jesus says today when quoting Psalm 110, “David by the Spirit calls [the Messiah] Lord”. We need to see both the human and Divine elements, both "David" and the Spirit, in the Bible. The Bible is not a Christian Koran. The human authors with their culture and presuppositions and limitations are all there, but the Spirit of God uses and works through those things to convey the truth that he wishes us to know.

So we need to use our minds when we are reading the Bible. Jesus says that, too: when he quoted the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, he added his own words, “and all your mind”.

The Bible is, as the Coronation service says, the greatest treasure this world affords. It bears faithful witness to God’s revelation of himself in Jesus. It contains all that we need for eternal salvation through Jesus. It gives us hope and comfort, but also correction and challenge. We read it in the community of faith gathered for the Eucharist. And we read it also in our private prayers and at moments of crisis and need. We read it because that is part of the way in which we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind. Because the Holy Spirit speaks through these human words it is a treasure that is inexhaustible, always unfolding new insights and guidance, both to us as individuals and in the life of the Church.

So, let us thank God for the Bible, and read it, and ask for God’s help as we continue on our lifelong exploration of his word. Let’s reflect again on the words of today’s collect:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

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