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

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, Trinity Sunday 2017

"The Bible Challenge" is available on Amazon

Isaiah 40.12-17,27-31            
2 Corinthians 13.11-13           
Matthew 28.16-20

Last week someone I visited told me about a question he had heard on a quiz programme. The question was, ‘which of the following words does not occur in the King James Bible: “Devil”; “Christian”; “Trinity”.’ The answer, as I’m sure you all know, is “Trinity”. The word “Trinity” does not occur in the King James Bible, or in fact in any edition or translation of the Bible at all.
Now it’s perfectly true that there are New Testament passages such as those we had this morning where Father, Son and Holy Spirit are named together. But these do not explicitly spell out the doctrine of the Trinity. They do not say in so many words that these are three distinct Persons sharing one Divine nature, which is what Christians believe.
When I’m collared by, say, a representative of the Jehovah’s witnesses (other non-Trinitarian sects are available) they usually try to catch me out with this as though somehow it would be a surprise. But I explain that the word “Trinity” – three in one - does not occur in the Bible, because it is a theological term developed in the early church to sum up what Christians believed they were reading in the Bible.
So, Jesus is spoken of sometimes as human – he is born, gets tired and thirsty, suffers and dies. And sometimes in language that can only be applied to God – he is the Word of the Father, he forgives sins, walks on the deep, says “I Am”, speaks of the glory he had with the Father before the world existed. The Spirit too, is distinct from the Father, but also spoken of as God. And yet scripture is absolutely clear that God is one and one only. Put all that together, and you get the doctrine of the Trinity.
All this is implicit in the Bible, but it took some time to arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity as we have it now.
If you went to a Church in the second or third century, you would have seen not a Bible as we have it, one volume bound together, but a row of scrolls on a shelf. There would have been the Jewish Torah, and some of the prophets, but perhaps not all. You might have had one or two gospels (but not the same ones in every place). There might have been some of the letters of St Paul, perhaps his letter to the Romans, his four letters to the Corinthians (of which only two have survived) and his letter to the Laodiceans (which we know existed but hasn’t survived at all).
You might not have seen the book of Revelation, or the letter of Jude, which were regarded as very controversial, though they are in the Bible today. But you might well have seen the Letter of Barnabas, or the Shepherd of Hermas, which still exist but aren’t in today’s Bible.
All these collections of writings were a bit of a mess, so the Church began to codify them, to decide which were authoritative. Which of the writings, in fact, could be said to be inspired by God, conveying the truths that he wanted us to have? There was pretty early consensus about most of them, though some such as Revelation continued to be controversial. Codification eventually produced a codex, that is a collection of writings bound together in one volume, which is more or less the Bible as we have it today. At this point we are around the middle of the fourth century.
That is about the same time that the Church formulated the Creed, the profession of faith we read together at Mass. The creed expressed what the Church did and did not believe about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This was the faith that the Church proclaimed to be uniquely revealed in the scriptures that the Church itself had received and compiled.
What, then, does the Church believe about the Bible? Well let us look at what Jesus says about it. In quoting a psalm, attributed to King David, Jesus says, “David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’”
Scripture is inspired by God but has human authors. The words of the psalm are those of “David”, the human author himself, whoever in fact lay behind that name; the truth that the psalm conveys is from the Holy Spirit.
We need to note this two-fold nature of scripture. Because human authors, even though they are moved by the Spirit, have their limitations. The writers convey the truths that God wants us to have, but are not fax machines receiving transmissions from on high. The truths of God were expressed within their cultural horizon and limitations, which included things like their understanding of sexuality, the role of women in society and the acceptability of slavery. And we of course are reading what they wrote within our cultural horizon, which has its own limitations.
Reading the Bible is not simply a question of looking up an answer. It’s a process of engagement, with the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit. We need not only each other locally but the witness of the church in other cultures, times and places. We can never say to other Christians that we have the whole truth and they don’t. We need each other.
Together, as the Church, we receive the truths revealed by God in scripture and expressed in the Creed, but lived out in diverse ways in every culture and time and place. Truth invites us on a journey; to receive it is to accept the direction in which God wants us to go, not to arrive at the final destination in an instant. It is a process of engagement, with the whole church, guided by the Spirit whom Jesus promised would lead us into all truth.
It’s a good thing to read the Bible. But it’s even better to do it in an informed way. And we are not perhaps as familiar with all the parts of the Bible as we ought to be. The readings we have in Church on Sundays are selected highlights, but there is so much more.
There are excellent resources to help our reading and study of scripture, and I’d like to recommend one today. The Bible Challenge sets out a systematic plan for reading the whole Bible in a year, which is about four or five chapters a day. You could spread it over two years if you want. Each day has notes from a number of well known and reputable Anglican Bible scholars from all over the world, from different cultures and backgrounds, which helps to challenge and enlarge our own local perspective.

I do recommend this, or another way of becoming more familiar with the Bible. Because far from finding that the Trinity is not there, we will discover that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are there on every page, leading and guiding us, with all the church, into the fullness of truth. And truth in the end is nothing other than communion with God the Holy Trinity, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, blessed for ever.

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