Today is Bible Sunday…when we are invited to focus afresh on the gift that is Scripture. And there’s a particular power in celebrating that gift today, Reformation Sunday, when we look back 500 years at the moment when an obscure German monk and academic began something that was to shake the world, as he nailed a document to the door of a small German church.
At the time, nobody could have foreseen what would follow, but the reverberations of Martin Luther’s hammer were to be felt across the Church, and across the world. The Protestant Reformation altered nations, shaped politics, provoked wars, and led to innovations in science, industry, economics, and medicine. It gave us Bach chorales and the Protestant work ethic, but so much more, the Reformation provided a much-needed corrective to a Church that had lost its way amid its own excesses, and, by placing the Bible in the hands of anyone who wanted to read it, gave ordinary baptized Christians the responsibility for their own faith.
Sola Scriptura was the cry then– Scripture alone. This was to be the single authority from which Christians were to work out their own salvation, in fear and trembling. They were no longer to outsource their theology to priestly experts, but to read God’s word for themselves...and to allow it to change them.
Of course, this gift was not the only outcome of the Reformation...As in most revolutions, people got hurt. Feelings ran so high that hundreds died, acclaimed as martyrs by one faction or the other, and the enmity between Protestants and Catholics endured for centuries. Today, though, there is repentence on both sides. “We have to say that breaking up the western church was not a gift to the church," says the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America while one American RC bishop announced "Catholics should do penance for setting the stage for the [division],"
And what about us, as members of the church of England, both Catholic and Reformed. We remain rooted in the traditions of the Fathers, our ordained ministry linking us in a chain that leads back to the moment when Jesus said to Cephas “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church” - and yet celebrate the priesthood of all believers and welcome all comers to explore Scripture for themselves, to hear God speaking to them in words that are both ancient and absolutely contemporary. At its best, Anglicanism might seem to be one of the most positive fruits of the Reformation, founded on tradition AND Scripture, on reason AND experience.
Which brings us to M, who will be baptized into God’s Church in just a little while. This is her heritage...not just the blood of the martyrs and the passionate lifelong search for God’s truth but the gift of Scripture itself, to guide her on life’s journey...
But hold on. What kind of gift is this? On a bad day, some might see the Bible as rather a white elephant, an outmoded piece of cultural and social history that shackles Christians so that they are unable to move forward to encounter God in the world today. Of course, that’s not my view, though I do worry that too often well-meaning Christians fall into the trap of asking the Bible to be something it really is not...and that can be decidedly unhelpful. The Bible is a GUIDE but not a detailed instruction manual. There’s work for us to do as we relate to it, and we must never, in reading it, suspend our common sense, leave our brains packed neatly in tissue paper and expect the Bible to make all our decisions for us. That way lies the sad tale of the apocryphal Christian who, seeking guidance,closed his eyes,opened his Bible, and let his finger land at random on the page…only to read
“Judas went and hanged himself”, followed closely by “Go and do likewise” and “What you do, do quickly”
It’s a good story….and a good illustration of the sort of abuse that the Bible can be subject to. The Bible was never intended as a fail-safe rule book, or a kind of detailed route-planner to lead us safely through life if we only pay obedient attention to every word within its covers. We were never expected to follow its words mindlessly – but to enter into a relationship with the text, allowing what we read and hear to act on us as we mark, learn and inwardly digest.
That’s the key. The Bible is not simply the story of people who lived long ago and far away. It is OUR story too. This library of ancient texts tells us the story of a people’s relationship with God…. And like any good story, this one evolved with the telling, gaining meaning as it impacted the lives of those who spoke and those who listened, til those meanings became part of the story themselves. That’s still how it works for us. We read of the struggles, disasters and misbehaviours of others and their story becomes a lens through which we can interpret our own lives and see, again and again, how God’s love remains constant. The bible is history – HIS story, the story of God’s love and justice and mercy, God’s ways, purposes, promises and victory. Everything, whether narrative or poetry, fable or rules, reflects this, a ollection of writings made both before and after Christ, which point us to God. A set of writings which considers God’s dealings with humanity in the past and his revelation of himself in Jesus.
Those who’ve listened to my preaching over the past 3 years will know that one of my very favourite questions is
“Where are YOU in the story?”
That, for me, is the key to a relationship with the Bible.
To remember that those women and men, prophets, shepherds, slaves, fishermen and kings, were living in a very different context, but with the same struggles, hopes and fears that we all carry day by day...so that in their stories and their experiences of God we can find wisdom, comfort and strength ourselves.
The Bible is God’s word – but God did not just tell us of God’s ways..God SHOWS us always and above all, through God’s LIVING WORD made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.
God’s words, written and lived are a love-letter from God to God’s people...to you and me, and today especially to M as she joins the household of faith.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” said Paul to the Colossians...and that’s my hope and prayer for each of us today. that we should love the Bible and make it our own, giving it our best attention, wrestling with it for a blessing time and again.
Let’s not be afraid to get things wrong, for errors are part of learning.
The Bible needs us, if it is to have any existence beyond the sterility of the page.
We need the Bible, if we are to gain insights into the ways of God for it is a book that will lead us to God and help us to engage with God in bringing in His kingdom.
The great theologian, Karl Barth, was once asked to sum up all he had learned in a lifetime of study. His response was to sing, very gently, a song that I, like him, learned in early childhood
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Holy wisdom, Holy word,
A gift, to be savoured and celebrated, laden with the love of God.
For the Word of the Lord, Thanks be to God!