Living the Word
October 23, 2011
Sermon for Bible Sunday 2011 (Nehemiah 8, 1-12; Matthew 24, 30-35)
I’m going to read you some bits of the Bible.
houtos ên en arche pros ton theon. Panta di autou egeneto kai choris autou ou di hen.
And here’s another bit.
In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum.
Omnia per ipsum facta sunt et sine ipso factum est nihil quod factum est.
Did that make any sense to you? Well, that was the first three verses in the Gospel of John – “In the beginning was the Word” etc. first in NT Greek, and then in Latin.
And if it didn’t make any sense to you, you now know something of how the Jews assembled in the square before the Water Gate in post-exile Jerusalem felt. They had been in exile in Babylon for between 50 and 150 years. Many of them had lost the ability to understand Hebrew, and were unfamiliar with the traditional Jewish Law. So, when Ezra the scribe read the Law to them, they needed the other scribes to explain what it said in a language they understood, probably Aramaic, which was the common language of Babylon. Following on from this initial reading of the Torah, Aramaic translations were written, called Targums, so that those who never regained fluency in Hebrew, were able to understand what was read.
Although Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, the literature of the New Testament was written in Greek, and most of the early Christians would have understood some of that. Later it was translated into Latin for the Western Church, and most people would have understood a little of that, at least until the fall of the Roman Empire. But from then on, until the Reformation and the translation of the Bible into the languages people actually spoke, most members of the congregation were in exactly the same position as many of you were when I read those passages at the beginning – hearing something they really didn’t understand.
You may think we’re in a much better position than those ancient Jews, or pre-Reformation Christians in this country, since we have the Bible in the language we speak, and freely available in a number of forms. But understanding a written document is not just about understanding the words. You also need to understand the sort of writing you are dealing with and the context in which it was written if you are really to get the message. Many Christians don’t have that knowledge and their understanding of the Bible and how to use it is weakened because of this.
Much of the Bible in its present form was put together around 2000 years ago; some of it was written down about 1000 years before that, and much of that contains oral traditions that were in circulation for many hundreds of years previously. We need to understand that, if we are to judge how applicable the actions and attitudes they advocate are to our 21st century world. Added to this is the fact that the words of the Bible are all translated from the original language in which they were spoken or written, sometimes many times, and each translation will be subtly affected by the assumptions of the translators. I have put some copies of a passage from the New Testament in Greek as it was originally written at the back for you to see – all in capitals with no punctuation and no spaces between the words. So think how difficult that makes it to understand what was being said and to recapture the original meaning of the text.
In primary school, our children are now taught to recognise different genres of writing, so that they can better understand what they read. We believers need to do the same with the different genres of writing in the Bible. It contains many different sorts of literature – stories, legal documents, history, prophecy, poetry, myths, letters, philosophical questioning – and we are failing to show it proper respect, and in danger of misusing it, if we don’t recognise this.
So, on this Bible Sunday, I would urge you to take every opportunity of getting to know the Bible better; not just the text, but also the background and the genre and the context of each of the books, and especially of the books of the New Testament. You will not truly be able to hear God’s Word speaking though its pages unless you do this.
One common mistake is to treat everything in the Bible as if it is direct instruction from God, as if it was all preceded by the words: “Thus saith the Lord”. In fact, very little of the Bible is written as direct words from God. Most of it is human reflection on the mystery of God, or accounts of people trying to understand and communicate God to their contemporaries. They do this both by their words and their actions. Some groups of Christians say only the words matter; in the presentation at Deanery Synod on Women Bishops, one of the speakers said his group in the church would always take a direct command in the Bible as more authoritative for our conduct than an action, even when the action was by Jesus. I can’t understand that. Would we judge by what a person said, rather than by what they did? I don’t think so.
Another common mistake is to take single sentences or passages out of context, and demand that they be applied to quite different circumstances. Whole theologies have been based on this sort of selective reading of texts. For instance, one of the ‘proof texts’ for those who says the whole Bible is literally true, inspired and infallible is 2 Timothy 3, verse 15. This says (depending on how you translate the original Greek) either ‘all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching etc.’ or ‘every Scripture inspired by God is useful for teaching the truth and rebuking error, etc.’. This passage is someone (probably not the Apostle Paul) writing to Timothy to give him advice about how (in his opinion) to use the Jewish Scriptures in his teaching and pastoral work. It is not making an authoritative statement about everything contained in the Christian Bible, some of which probably hadn’t even been written at the time the letters to Timothy were being circulated. Other passages, which are more definitely written by the Apostle Paul, criticise the written Scriptures, saying only faith in Christ brings life, whereas the Torah brings death. Jesus himself challenged those who followed the letter of the law rather than its spirit. Which of these is the example for us to follow?
The Bible is not so much a text book or a code of conduct for us to slavishly follow, as a continuing conversation between human beings and the divine. Like all conversations, things can be misunderstood, and misheard, particularly when we are listening in to someone else’s conversation from some distance away. And people may express different opinions at different times ( that certainly happens with the Bible).
When we read the Bible, we need to think of it as like a conversation with a group of trusted friends, whose advice and experience may inform our decisions about important things. We will need to think about which friend we ask about different problems – some may have something valid to say to us; others, we know, may not have any experience at all of what concerns us. On some issues we may have to consult other people outside this circle, who have more expertise in the subject of concern. Finally, we will need to weigh up all the advice before we make our decision, based on all we know about God’s will for us from many different sources.
On this Bible Sunday, we honour the Bible and the insights of previous generations that it shares with us. At the same time we remember that we are not, as Jews and Muslims are, ‘People of the Book’. The Bible is not the Word of God for us: the Word of God is embodied in a person, Jesus of Nazareth. That person is part of God the Trinity, the God who continues to be revealed to us through the Holy Spirit, day by day and in our own time. We need to recognise that some passages in the Bible most definitely do not reflect the God revealed to us through Jesus Christ.
Anglican theology is not based on ‘sola scriptura’, Scripture alone. It is based on scripture, reason and tradition. This is often spoken of as ‘a three-legged stool’, which is a useful analogy to keep in mind, since a three-legged stool is no use at all if one of the legs is a different length to the other two. Only if all three are equal is it stable enough to bear the weight of what is placed on it!
So, when we read the Bible, we need to take account of the tradition of the Christian church, which is still evolving, and use our God given reason when we interpret it.
We need to remember that we are called to live the Word of God, but that Word is a person, not words on a page.