Bible Sunday: Isaiah 55.1-11 & John 5.36b-47
Sermon preached St George’s Preshute, 28th October 2018, 10.00am
Today, the Sunday before All Saints’ Sunday, can be celebrated as Bible Sunday. As it is usually also the last Sunday of October, we can link this in with Reformation Sunday, remembering that on 31st October 1517, Luther allegedly put his 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg, marking the beginning of the Reformation.
The Bible as we now know it, was formalised, so to speak, in the fifth century. Despite some differences, most Christians agree on the contents of what is now our Holy Book. However, although we may agree on the content, since the very early days of Christianity, people have disagreed on what it means to believe in the authority of Scripture.
Unlike the Qur’an for Muslims, which they believe to be the direct word of God, brought to Muhammed by the angel Gabriel, most Christians agree that most, if not all, of the Bible is not the direct word of God, but that it is divinely inspired. And, one could say, that is where the problem starts. Because now we have to start discerning which parts are historical, cultural, limited by a certain worldview and understanding, and which parts are moral codes or divine commands, which point to eternal truths about God and His relationship with us.
However, this morning, instead of focussing on where we may disagree, I would like to look at things about which we can agree. Although, of course you may disagree with what I am about to say!
That is then precisely where I would like to start. Instead of seeing the possibility of many different interpretations of Scripture as a threat to our faith, I would like to suggest that it actually offers an opportunity.
Although disagreement is often uncomfortable, conversations in which we are able to articulate our arguments and listen to others, are the only way in which we can learn. If you only listen and speak to people with whom you disagree, you will soon notice (or not, for that matter!) that your worldview is becoming increasingly narrow.
If used well, words can be creative, and certainly God’s Word is creative. Words can help us to understand and articulate things we may have known already, but were not able to fully comprehend or able to share with others.
That brings us to the genre of Scripture, which I think is unique and this is what it makes it particularly valuable. There are different ways in which we can use language. We can use it to describe facts, whether true or false. There are twenty-five people here this morning. Yesterday was Saturday. Et cetera. Oversimplified, one could say that this is the language of science. But, of course, this is not the only way to use words. Think for example about poetry, novels, plays. In those cases words are not just used to describe things and facts, but in a much richer way.
The language used in Scripture, I would like to suggest, is much more like poetry than it is like science. Furthermore, I think that it is even richer than poetry, and I also believe that this is of fundamental importance to our Christian faith. God created the world through speaking. In Christ, the Word became flesh. The Word is at the heart of our faith. I would even like to go one step further and say that in God’s word we do not only see God’s love, but that God’s word is God’s love. It is God’s love that created the world, and God’s love that became flesh in the person of Jesus. Also, looking at this morning’s readings, just try to read them with ‘love’ instead of ‘word’, and their meaning does not change much.
In the reading from Isaiah: “so shall my love be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose”. And in John’s Gospel “you do not have his love abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent”.
You may think this is all becoming a bit too far-fetched, but maybe what I am trying to say is this: that in the Bible we have a testament of God’s love for His people, and through this we know His love for us. Although we hear and read about particular people at a particular time, through God’s love for them, we become aware of God’s love for us.
Jacob wrestling with God, Cain not being able to control his envy, Peter denying Jesus and finding himself to be redeemed, Mary weeping at the empty tomb, the Prodigal Son hesitating to come home: these are only a few examples of people in which we may have recognised something of ourselves. Their stories are our story: it is the story of God with his people, the story of God’s love for us.
The story itself is often challenging, addressing not just the parts of ourselves we like to see, but also those parts of ourselves which we find hard to face. Part of the comfort in Scripture, I find, is the reassurance that my shortcomings are as universal as my strengths. And that ultimately, I am loved and accepted by God as a whole person, not because of what I have achieved, but neither turned away because of what I have done wrong.
Back to Bible Sunday, and back to where I started. Despite our differences about the authority and interpretation of Scripture, I think what unites us is much stronger than what divides us. We are all part of God’s story, because God has created us out of His love.
To finish, I would like to suggest that this brings with it a collective responsibility: the responsibility to keep that story alive. First of all, within ourselves. To keep the conversation between ourselves and God going, so to speak. In prayer, in study and in worship. But also, to seek to seek that conversation with others: to keep God’s story alive in this world.
Maybe the one thing we need to do to make that happen is to love. To speak God’s word is to love: to love as God loves us. People often say that it is not so much what someone said to them that they remember, but how it was said. And maybe that is not a too bad way of approaching Scripture too, especially when it comes to those passages about which we disagree.
God gave us His word; he gave us His love. It is up to us to continue to recognise that in ourselves and others. We keep God’s story alive not only by telling it with words, but through the lives we live. That is what it means for God’s love, God’s word to abide in us, and we in Him.