Texts: Isaiah 55:1-11; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; John 5:36b-47
Theme: Speaks for itself this time: "The Holy Scriptures" covers it.
Introduction. Not every specially designated Sunday appeals to me, but this one is special. This is our core business. Usually we are focusing on short passages of Scripture, without giving any thought to what Scripture is (and isn't); or why we read every week from the Scriptures and not from, say, the Collected works of Charles Dickens or the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. So this day gives us an opportunity to reflect on those questions, guided, of course, by today's readings, each of which has important things to say on this topic. Isaiah shows us the power of God's word to achieve its purpose. The classic example of that is found in the creation text in Genesis 1, but we have a variation on the theme in today's chapter 5 of John's Gospel. (Yes, I know we only have to read verses 36b-47, but we're allowed to read the whole chapter, so why wouldn't we?) Paralysed for 38 years, the man is suddenly able to do what Jesus commands him to do – stand up and walk. And in between, St Paul gives directions to Timothy that still constitute the preacher's charter today.
Background. As I write these notes General Synod is once again grappling with issues relating to sexuality, and in particular to those around same-gender relationships. Leaving aside bigotry, ignorance and all other human failings that seem to surface with particular force in such debates (inside as much as outside the Church), a major part of the issue for those who do want to arrive at Christ-centred solutions is our attitude to Scripture, or, more fundamentally, our understanding of what Scripture actually is. Some have what I call an Islamic attitude to Scripture. Just as classical Islam holds that the Koran is the dictated word of God and must be accepted literally, without interpretation or gloss (some even believe that it should not be translated into any language from the original Arabic), so there are some within the Church who believe that the Scriptures are the dictated word of God and must be treated accordingly.
Such a view is open to all sorts of attacks on historical, literary and other grounds, even by people who wish to give a very high value to Scripture, as I do. But to me the defining objection to that view lies in the fact that the Scriptures themselves contradict it, and I don't mean that by careful search we can find individual cases of specific contradictions: I mean that there are clear indications in the teaching of Jesus and of St Paul that such an approach cannot be sustained logically. A quick example from St Paul is found in 1 Corinthians 7: compare verses 10 and 12, where he distinguishes between two commandments, one from the Lord and the other from himself. As for the Lord, we only have to think of his attitude to the Sabbath to see that, at the very least, he believed in "interpreting" the written word, not just slavishly following it.
That is also my answer to the other popular description of the Bible (which really does get up my nose!) as "the Maker's Handbook", a sort of Divine Help Desk to which we turn when we have a problem. Try that approach with any modern issues and you will soon find yourself in the hopeless bind that General Synod has been in for the last few years and is still in as I write.
So if the Bible is not the dictated word of God, nor the Maker's Handbook, what is it? Those who have been reading these notes over the last few weeks will not be surprised to learn that I have become more and more convinced that what the Bible is essentially is a collection of accounts of religious experiences, human-divine encounters, individual and collective, collected over centuries, together with reflections on those experiences as the faith communities have tried to make sense of them. To take just one example here, whatever happened or didn't happen at the Bethesda pool in today's gospel passage we can surely say that the cripple of 38 years had a life-changing experience that was out of the ordinary run of things. It was personal to him, but becomes part of our tradition through the account we have in John's Gospel. It becomes part of the record, the canon, by which we assess other experiences, our own or those of other people. This is part of what makes an experience "religious"; we interpret it within the Christian tradition. Has anything like this ever happened before? Oh, yes, here is a record of a similar event in the Scriptures, or in subsequent accounts.
A central feature of this and most other such encounters is the spoken word: the experient hears words addressed to him or her. When we are considering biblical accounts of people meeting Jesus in the flesh, as it were, we do not find anything particularly odd about that; we focus on what was said and meant. But we should at least notice how often we are told that the crowds were amazed at what he said, as well as what he did. He spoke with a particular authority, with great wisdom, and so on. Where did he get this stuff from? And, of course, his words were often "performatory" – they achieved his purpose (the storm instantly died down, this man immediately got up and walked). One of the great characteristics of a religious experience is that it is self-authenticating, the experient "just knows" it is real. Jesus' own explanation was simply that he did not speak his own words, but those given to him by the Father.
Isaiah. This is surely one of the most joyful passages in the whole of Isaiah's wonderful book! He is overwhelmed by the sense of God's bounty, his sheer goodness to us. God is the source of everything, not just bare necessities, but wonderful treats ("the richest fare") as well. (For more details of the menu see Isaiah 25:6. If he was writing today you just know there would be references to chocolate in this passage somewhere!) And included in the list of marvellous things that come from God is his spoken word. The key verse here is 11: having referred to the rain and the snow that come down from heaven to water the earth and promote growth, the great prophet (speaking, of course, as God's mouthpiece) continues: so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. Experience tells us that what God promises to do, he will do. Here that is taken one step further: what God says will come to pass.
Taking It Personally.
· Take a few moments to consider how you are feeling. It's natural to feel a bit down in midwinter. Nothing much is happening in the garden, the abundance and variety of food is diminished. Lunchtime sandwiches are getting boring – cheese and what today? Now cheer yourself up by listening to verse 1 over and over again until you have learned it by heart.
· Ponder verse 2. Reflect on your own priorities in your life at this time. Do you need to make any changes?
· Now verse 6. Are you truly seeking the Lord? Do you sense his near presence with you?
· If you're inclined to try to "think your way to heaven", take verses 8 and 9 three times a day until you are cured.
· Next time you hear a news item over the ongoing stoush about water rights, recall this passage: water is the gift of God for the people of God.
Timothy. A modern translation of this charge from the old hand, St Paul, to the rookie, Timothy, might be "Stick to your knitting." As I said at the start of these notes, the Scriptures are our core business. While Paul tells Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry", the heart of that ministry is summed up in three words in 4:2: "Preach the Word". Timothy has already begun, so Paul in effect is telling him to stick at it: not to be diverted or discouraged, and not to change the message to please the punters. He reminds Timothy that he has been brought up on the Scriptures and has been convinced of their truth. First lesson: no one should preach if they are not themselves convinced of the truth of the Scriptures. The key verse in this passage is verse 16, which requires careful pondering if we want to have a biblical attitude towards the Bible. All Scripture is "God-breathed" we're told – a happier phrase would be "inspired by God"; and I would want to say something more about the ways in which Scripture is inspired. Scripture is only words on the paper unless it is read and heard, when an encounter between the human and divine becomes possible. Yes, I believe that the writers were inspired by God (through the Holy Spirit) in the writing; but the Spirit also guided those who decided over the years what was and what was not to be included in the Bible, and preserved those documents to ensure that they were not lost to us; and the Spirit guides the listener/reader to hear and receive the message in the Scriptures.
And there's more. The Scriptures are "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness". We must take them seriously, and seek guidance from them; but in the context it is clear that they are to be used as a teaching tool, not an infallible manual.
One final point before we get to the gospel passage. In the Collect suggested for this celebration we ask God to grant that by patient study of the Scriptures we may follow more closely the way that you set before us. We are used to talking about self-fulfilling prophecies; here is a self-answering prayer. How else might God answer this prayer if we are not prepared to commit ourselves to patient study of the Scriptures?
Taking It Personally.
· Commit yourself to patient study of the Scriptures, say 30 minutes daily for at least a month, and see what happens.
· Focus on verses 3 and 4 (Chapter 4). How eager are you to seek spiritual wisdom from other sources than the Bible? How accurate do you think Paul's prediction is as you look at our society today?
John. And if we really want to acquire a biblical attitude towards the Bible, we need to set aside ample time to study today's passage from Scripture. And do read the whole chapter to get the full flavour of what Jesus is saying here. Verse 39 makes particular sense when you understand that this ongoing debate was triggered by Jesus' healing of the paralytic at the pool. Notice that his critics have turned on the beggar himself because he was seen carrying his mat on the Sabbath!!! Take a moment to laugh out loud at that. This guy has been paralysed for 38 years, he's been healed, and all the religious people can say is not "Whoopee!", but how dare he carry his mat home on the Sabbath. They were treating Scripture as The Maker's Handbook; they were taking literally the Scriptural prohibition against doing any work on the Sabbath. Yes, we could quibble over their interpretation of the word "work", but that's hardly the point. The point is they are so focused on Scripture that they have lost sight of God, even though he has now come among them. They diligently study the Scriptures, says Jesus, because they believe that's the way to get salvation. There's the warning for all those who focus entirely on the Bible instead of on Christ. He is the Saviour, not the Bible.
One further word on this passage. It sometimes seems a bit cheeky for Christians to insist that the Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture) is about Christ, as Jesus himself says today. Yet that attitude comes out of the Christian experience: as they pondered the whole Christ event they looked to their Scriptures for guidance. We can see this in the Road to Emmaus story and the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. That is the way in which we still use Scripture to evaluate our own religious experiences today.
Taking It Personally.
· If a friend asked you how you felt about the Bible, what would you say? Is it important to you? How important? Why? How do you show that?