Sunday 26 October 2014

The word of God

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 26th October 2014, celebrated as Bible Sunday, year A

Today I’m going to talk about the Bible.
This is the last Sunday in October, which General Synod has designated as Bible Sunday. It gives us an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on what we sometimes call the Good Book.

But the Bible is more than just a book - it is in fact an extraordinary library of books.

The books of what we call the Old Testament are a record of how the ancient Hebrews - the children of Israel – developed over many centuries their beliefs in one great God JHWH. We find in them a strange mixture of origin myths, history, poetry, philosophy and theology. Why should these records of a small, weak nation more than 2000 years ago still be important to Christians today? Because they provide the background and context in which Jesus and his disciples thought and talked about their God, who is also our God. The New Testament would be unintelligible without the Old Testament.

The New Testament tells us in the Gospels about Jesus, whom we call Lord and believe to be God’s Son. It tells us of his teaching about God as Father, God’s outpouring Love and the power of God’s Spirit. And in Acts and the Epistles we get an insight into how Jesus’s small band of followers was inspired to bring their faith in him to the world, from which we too take inspiration.

Without both sections of the library, we could not be Christians. The scriptures anchor us to our faith. They allow us always to return to the safe harbour of Jesus’s teaching. Without them we would be adrift, bobbing about in chaotic seas of speculation, by turns wrong-headed or ineffectually well meaning. This is why the Bible is such a precious gift.

Christians often call the Bible the Word of God.
The word of God has meant different things to different people at different times, as the 3 readings set for today illustrate.

For Ezra and the people who gathered in the square before the Watergate in the 1st reading (Nehemiah 8:1-6), set in the 5th Century BC, the word of God meant ‘the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel’ – that is the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Old Testament.

By the time of Jesus the Jewish people had come to see the word of God in the later books of the Old Testament too.

Paul, writing 500 years after Ezra and a generation after Jesus’s death, identifies the word of God with the words of Jesus Christ. In our 2nd reading (Colossians3:12-17) Paul prays for the Colossians, ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’, because, as he has written earlier in the letter, ‘in (Christ) the whole fullness of (God) dwells bodily’ (Colossians 2.9).

So does Matthew in the Gospel reading (Matthew: 24:30-35), writing perhaps 20 years after Paul. He believes that Jesus who called himself the Son of Man was truly the Son of God, and Jesus’s words are God’s words: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’, says Jesus, ‘but my words will not pass away’. And they have not, thanks to Matthew and the other Gospel writers.

For Paul and Matthew holy scripture would have meant the Old Testament. The New Testament wasn’t assembled and put together until long after their deaths. So they could not have seen the Bible as we have received it as the word of God.

Some Christians believe the Bible is ‘inerrant’, meaning that every single word is God’s plain truth, never to be questioned. They believe that in some sense God has dictated the words to those who wrote the different books, and that God has ensured that no errors or omissions have been introduced over the millennia that they have been copied and translated. I can’t and don’t believe that myself. I fear their belief is dangerous, likely to lead them to misunderstand God’s word, and so not to behave as God wants them to.

But I do I suggest that we can and should believe that the Bible we have inherited is inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, even if mediated through fallible human authors. 

We can hear the authentic word of God in it -  provided we read it through the lenses of reason and tradition – as that great Anglican theologian Hooker put it. To which I myself would add the lens of experience – our own experience of the love of Christ working in our hearts, and that of God’s continuing self-revelation through his glorious creation.

But rather than listen to me talking about the Bible, surely we should be listening to what the Bible has to say to us.
Let me tease out some of the word of God that I hear in Paul’s words to the Colossians - I think they are particularly relevant to us today in this parish.

Paul has been warning the Colossian Christians not to be beguiled by false teachings, which have caused divisions among them. In his Gospel, John tells us Jesus prayed to his Father that his disciples may be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:21). But it is a sad fact that from the earliest times Christians have found it difficult to agree and easy to fight each other. Today, Christ’s Church is splintered. The splintered churches are divided into competing parties – as our Church of Ireland is on some matters. And our parishes are all too often divided by personal disputes, as we know only too well.

Now Paul urges the Colossians to come together. ‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body’, he says, because you are all ‘God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved’. In our heart of hearts we know we are chosen and loved by God too, don’t we? And our experience of God’s amazing, bountiful grace, as shown for instance in the harvest we’ve been enjoying, confirms it. So let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts too.

But holiness – that's difficult, isn’t it? The holy, Christ-like qualities of ‘compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience’ don’t fall on us like rain at our baptism or confirmation, drenching us to the core once and for all. We have to work at them continually. We have to consciously put them on every day, and wear them like clothes. Above all, says Paul, we must ‘clothe (ourselves) with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’.

We know, don’t we, that Jesus calls us to ‘turn the other cheek’, to bear with one another and forgive those who hurt us: ‘just as the Lord has forgiven (us), so (we) also must forgive’, as Paul says. If ‘the word of Christ dwells in (us) richly’, as Paul prays it will for the Colossians, then we will ‘teach and admonish one another in all wisdom’ – that means, I think, we are to use our God-given common sense when we engage with those with whom we have fallen out or disagree, not let our feelings rule us.

Through it all, says Paul, we should always strive to be joyful. A smile on our face makes us feel better and that will help us be better – it will make others feel better too, and perhaps that will help them be better. And it is easier to be joyful if our heart sings – when we worship let us sing out our gratitude to God who has graciously given us so much.

And finally, says Paul, as Christians, ‘whatever (we) do in word or deed’, we must do ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’.

These are words of God that I hear in St Paul’s words to the Colossians.

Let me finish with a prayer that the peace of Christ may rule in our hearts, as Paul prayed it would in the hearts of the Colossians.
O God, our loving Father,
Lead us from division to unity, from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from fear to trust, from hate to love.
Let peace fill our hearts, our parish, our church, our world.
Let us dream together, pray together, work together,
to build God’s Kingdom of peace and justice for all.

In Jesus name we pray. Amen

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