Saturday, 23 October 2010

Bible Sunday : Is this the word of the Lord?


Romans 15:1-6
Please Others, Not Yourselves
We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour.
For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Luke 4:16-24
The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

‘This is the word of the Lord’. It’s a phrase we use so often that I wonder whether we really think a great deal about what we’re actually saying, that we’re affirming that these words come from, or are inspired by, God. There are some difficult passages in the Bible and sometimes I almost find myself wanting to say, ‘Is this the word of the Lord?’! But today, in the church’s calender, is called Bible Sunday and we’re going to think a little about what we really think of the Bible using today’s readings.

We begin with the Romans passage, and just to put some context on it for you, at this point in the letter St. Paul is writing about disagreements in the Roman church, mainly about what it was permissible to eat. Now you have to remember that Paul was a liberal in his day. Although he was a Jewish Christian he primarily worked as a missionary to Gentiles, non-Jews like us.

That meant that much of the work that he was doing was amongst people for whom the Jewish Law, the Torah, had never had any meaning. They hadn’t grown up with it, and so knew nothing of the Jewish belief that they still had to keep the law even if they were a Christian, and so Paul found himself challenged about whether new Gentile Christians should also have to keep the law, or whether their freedom in Christ meant there was no need.

Eventually he decided that their spiritual freedom meant they should not be shackled by Jewish law and were therefore free to eat whatever foods were going. However, although he believed it was permissible, he also knew that there was something above that freedom which was love for other sisters and brothers in the faith who had not reached the same conclusion.

This was of particular concern in Rome because the church there was a mixture of Gentile and Jewish Christians, and so it was likely that more of the Jewish Christians would feel it was improper for them to eat food prohibited by Torah.

The gentile Christians would have had no such compunction, but Paul was instructing them that they should not please themselves in this matter if it hurt other believers. First and foremost they should love each other which meant they should respect the choices another made.

But on this Bible Sunday the challenge for us is where these Jews were getting their teaching from, which was, of course, the Bible. All the rules about what to eat came from the Bible, and those who felt a particular way about their heritage and what was written in their Bible felt that they should continue to keep the Torah even though they had found freedom in Christ.

St. Paul, also a Jewish Christian, believed otherwise, and that the Christian teaching about being free superceded what was in their Bible. Now we can see why this was such a big issue for them, and in a moment we’ll look at a modern parallel, but St. Paul was saying that even above freedom in Christ came the command always to love your neighbour, and so it was vital not to antagonise and upset others who lived differently because of what they read in scripture.

Now although this all took place two thousand years ago, it has a surprisingly strong parallel in the modern church.

The Church of England is struggling to hold itself together as it faces a number of challenges about what it believes. The one which is currently most prominent is the debate over whether women may be called by God to be Bishops. The issue for us today is not so much who is correct, but where they get their information from on which they base their decision, and how they then behave.

You see there are a number of clergy, bishops and even most of a congregation that are considering leaving the Church of England to join the Roman Catholic church because that denomination does not recognise the priesthood of women. Their reason for deciding to move is their belief that scripture teaches that women should not lead churches. However, lots of people disagree with them.

The problem is that if it were truly the case that the Bible clearly teaches women could not be Bishops, as they are suggesting, why is there such disagreement within the Anglican communion? You see there are many, myself included, who simply do not think that this is what the Bible teaches. Certainly you can find verses which suggest that women should not lead, but you can also find contrary verses, as well as a theology inspired by phrases from St. Paul that explicitly declare absolute equality.

Can you see how this parallels what St. Paul was writing about? Two parties in disagreement over what is right; both with valid reasons for their stance. Is this really what scripture is for? Should we really be using it as a prop for our philosophical and theological arguments? I mean, if I want to I can justify slavery and stoning, as well as having a few extra wives, all from scripture.

Bible Sunday is meant to be about us celebrating the written, inspired word of God, and the first reading is all about how scripture should promote love, unity and so on, yet in the real world that’s a million miles away from how some in the church are acting. Why is that? I think it’s because, all too often, we don’t use the Bible as it was intended. Let’s have a glance at the Gospel reading and I’ll show you what I mean and what I think scripture is actually meant for.

Here we can see Jesus using scripture prophetically to say something about himself and his mission. Everyone present is talking in positive terms about Jesus. But then it all turns sour. Jesus goes on to interpret scripture to them, showing them that God’s vision for salvation was far wider reaching than just for the Jews, and that maybe they might even be excluded if they didn’t recognise him for who he was.

They were outraged and tried to kill him. Our first impression is that Jesus might have been using scripture badly, as a vehicle for pushing his own beliefs. But actually what he was doing was much more subtle, and I believe he gives us the key to how scripture is really to be used.

You see what Jesus actually did was use scripture as a mirror to show the people who they were. He used scripture to challenge them so that they could see themselves as they really were.

Yes, scripture does teach us, and it does encourage us, and it does give us hope, but it does a far more important job than that: it exposes us and reveals our intentions, and unless we face up to who we are, we can never grow as Christians.
This is what Jesus did, and in showing his home town their shortcomings he enraged them. And scripture will do that too. But that is why I preach from scripture: because it is meant to make us think; it is meant to get under our skin and challenge us about who we are and how we live; it is meant to be a tool of the Holy Spirit to change us.

The writer to the Hebrews put it better than I could ever hope to. This is from Hebrews 4:12:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Back at the beginning I said that sometimes I feel like saying, ‘Is this the word of the Lord?’ about some of the difficult passages, but I guess that’s the whole point of scripture; it should sometimes be used by the Holy Spirit to make us question our motives, our beliefs and our reason for behaving as we do.

Those people who are currently using the Bible as a tool for suggesting that women should not be allowed to lead dioceses should be asking themselves what the Holy Spirit is saying to them about themselves through the scriptures they are using. In fact I would say the same thing about those who are using the Bible as a tool for excluding anyone whose philosophies are different from their own. What does the use of scripture in that way say about you yourself?

Whenever we criticise someone else we are always saying more about ourselves than about the object of our criticism. How much more must that be true when we use God’s inspired word to us as a tool of exclusion?

So yes, I believe the Bible is the word of God to us. And yes, I believe it can teach us about God. But I also want to emphasize that I think the Holy Spirit is the One who best wields it as a tool when She reveals truths to us about ourselves through reading the Bible.

But the question I now have to ask you is, do we read our Bibles in such a way as to allow it to do that?

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