Sermon for Cotham, Bible Sunday: 28 Oct 2018
Readings: Isaiah 55:1-11, Ephesians 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, John 5:36b-end
The church’s calendar gives three possible choices for today. We could have celebrated the Apostles St Simon and St Jude or we could have had the readings for the last Sunday after Trinity or we could celebrate Bible Sunday. I chose Bible Sunday because I think it’s important to talk about how a church like ours looks at the Bible.
As I said in my introduction , to-day’s readings are for Bible Sunday. When you stop and think about it the Bible is a remarkable book. It’s not just one book it’s a collection of books. A collection that contains some material that may date from 1,300 years before the birth of Christ to writings from the early part of the second century AD. So it’s very old and yet much of what is written there still seems relevant because we human beings have not changed much in how we behave and how we feel.
I have to start with the obvious – the Bible is not infallible. As the follower of Paul, who wrote what we know as the second epistle to Timothy says The Holy Spirit was there with its many authors and editors – but we human beings have always been very good at mistaking our own prejudices for the promptings of Holy Spirit. The authors and editors of the books of the Bible were not immune to this human failing. And also whenever people write accounts of historical events they always have their own agenda. This affects what they include or leave out and their interpretation of what happened. Again the authors and editors of the Bible in the bible are like everybody else.
Next, as I said the Bible is a collection of books. If we just look at the New Testament, there were a lot of books written in the early years of Christianity that did not get included in the Bible. There are some strange stories in the books that were eventually included but there are far more very strange stories and passages in the ones that were excluded. The selection process seems to have just happened and then was confirmed by church authorities. And it seems to have been based on the books that were generally used in worship. It took some time for the selection to be complete. The earliest surviving complete bible known as the Codex Sinaiticus includes two books that didn’t eventually make the cut. This codex was preserved at St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai until much of it was borrowed in the 19th century. Most of it then went to the Czar of Russia and then was sold on by the Communist government in 1933. This part has ended up in the British Library. It was written sometime between 330 and 360 AD. If
you want to know more – it has a very good website – Google will take you there.
There are two more points I need to make about the history of the Bible itself. Until the invention of printing all books had to be copied by hand. It was laborious work and mistakes inevitably happened. Some happened because of the inevitable human failures. Others happened because when for instance two gospels differ in the exact words they used, the scribes tended to harmonise them. So getting back to what was originally written is not an exact science.
And then there is the whole business of translation. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. So our bibles are translations. And when it comes to Jesus he spoke Aramaic so there is another level of translation from Aramaic to Greek. Getting translation right is very difficult because words and ways of speaking are seldom exactly equivalent in two different languages. And words are used in different ways in different languages. I’ve never learnt Hebrew but I understand that in Hebrew words have a wider range of meaning than we are used to in English. So translators have to choose what seems to be the dominant meaning – and so inevitably leave out some of the whole range of meanings in the original. This is a special problem when we are using poetic language and metaphor. As the many parts of the Bible do.
So that’s a very quick historical introduction to Bible. It reminds us how we need to be careful how we use the Bible. But in practice we just have to get on with what has come down to us and make use of it prayerfully without expecting to find a code of practice or a rule book. I would also point out that particularly New Testament emerged from the church. It’s not a handbook which would allow us to create the church from scratch.
Now thinking about what is included in the bible – what about all the violence in the historical books in the Old Testament? And what about the passages where God seems to require ethnic cleansing? We could wish they weren’t there. And of course we don’t have to believe they actually come from God.
But there is more positive take. They do show that our scriptures include the whole of human experience. That we are not afraid to convey the desperate and very real frustration, lament, and anger that are part of the human condition. The fact that such passages were allowed to be written into our holy scriptures are evidence of a mature people who realize that it’s best not to hide our dirty laundry or to deny our very real human feelings and passions. If the Bible were all about PR propaganda, those passages would have been edited out. We view those passages as exceptions to the over-arching message of the Bible of promoting unconditional love and the full inclusion and acceptance of all of God’s children. And since they make space for our need to rage and vent our anger– we honour the Bible all the more for it honours our shadow sides – and that honouring is what allows for the possibility of our shadows being transformed and integrated in healthy ways.
Now some thoughts on interpreting what the Bible says. First where possible we can follow what the bible says about itself. For instance the prophet Ezekiel includes a passage about the “sin of your sister Sodom”. She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. And Jesus also supports the view that the sin of Sodom was their lack of hospitality and hesed (that’s one of those Hebrew words with a broad range of meanings – it usually translated as loving-kindness). So the Bible itself doesn’t think Sodom’s main sin was homosexuality.
And then most importantly as one writer put it We employ a hermeneutic of compassion, love, and justice. (Which Jesus utilized). A hermeneutic is “an interpretive lens” and intentional filter. The hermeneutic of love seeks to see the forest for the trees and that allows the spirit of the law to trump the letter of the law. (It was how Jesus did it).
Everybody uses the bible selectively – even fundamentalists. I would say that in some ways the Bible is a record of how human understanding of God grew over the centuries. And that means giving priority to the books that show greatest understanding. I would say that means giving greater weight to the gospels, to the letters that Paul most likely wrote himself, to much of the psalms and to the prophets especially Isaiah. The pastoral epistles – the letters to Timothy and Titus were most probably issued in his name some years after his death.
Yes we need to use the Bible critically, to try to see it as a whole, to value the bits that bring us closer to God and to reject the bits that don’t. That’s what Jesus did with the Old Testament – which was his Bible. He is a good example.
I’ve given you an awful lot of information in a short time! I will put this on the website if you want to revisit it. And there isn’t time to go on to the next bit – which would be some thoughts on how to use the Bible prayerfully. The passages we had from Isaiah and the fourth gospel talk about being fed by the scriptures. How that can happen will have to wait for a future sermon. But those who went on the retreat at Llangasty will have experienced one of the ways I could have talked about.