Does anyone here like receiving presents? I do. When I was ordained deacon the Church of England gave me a New Testament and Psalms. When I was ordained priest they decided they could trust me with the whole of the Bible. In the bible they gave me for my priesting a card was placed, with my name on it. On the card was written the following words:
‘Receive this Book, as a sign of the authority which God has given you this day, to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister His Holy Sacraments.’
Now, at the risk of being defrocked, struck off, sent to some far flung part of the Anglican Communion, I am slightly tempted to quibble with this invocation, for the Bible isn’t a book but a collection of books. The bible is a biblios which includes different types of book within each of its testaments. In the Old Testament we have the ‘in the beginning book’ of Genesis, the law books, the history books, the wisdom books, and the books of prophecy. In the New Testament we have the four gospels, Paul’s specific epistles, Peter and John’s general epistles, and the apocalyptic and visionary book of Revelation. The bible is a collection of different books, written for different purposes, so we need to be clear when we say things like ‘the Bible clearly says.’
In the reading from today’s epistle we hear one of the most quoted verses in the Bible ‘all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching.’ This verse is often interpreted as ‘the Bible is correct in every way.’ But it can’t mean this for one very simple reason: when Paul wrote these words to Timothy the gospels hadn’t been written, in all probability, and the canon hadn’t been agreed. So we need to treat this verse with some caution. But this doesn’t mean that we can dismiss the Bible. Not does it mean that the bible isn’t truly inspired by God and useful for teaching. What it does mean is that we should treat the bible with dignity, reverence and intelligence, holding it lovingly in our hands as we read it. What we should never do is to reduce the Bible to a form of Christianised Haynes Manuel.
My approach to the Bible is fairly straightforward and, as a Christian, I believe that the central figure in the Bible is Jesus. The Old Testament points us towards the coming of Jesus, the gospels introduce us to the person of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament, with the exception of the Book of Revelation, shows us how we might live as communities that believe in Jesus; and the emphasis on the communal is all important. We are after all a communion, so the only real question is whether we aspire to be a Holy Communion.
The approach I have sketched is in many ways highly Lutheran. I believe, like Luther, that the Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation, but without believing that the bible is perfect in every way. Like Channing I believe the Bible to be ‘a human and therefore fallible record of the infallible divine word.’ Like Luther I believe that we should read the Bible with openness and humility allowing our consciences to be ‘captive to the word of God, rather than the Bible.’
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus urges his followers not to mine the Scriptures in the vain attempt to find verses that affirm any prejudice we might hold, but instead to focus on learning more about the very character of Jesus. If we follow this advice the Bible will, I suggest, open up in unexpected ways before us. Luther said: ‘if you want to interpret well set Christ before you, for he is the man to whom it all applied, every bit of it.’
My hunch, my suspicion, is that Luther was, and is right. As a community and as individuals we should treat the Bible with dignity and reverence, we should set ourselves before the endlessly fascinating Christ of the Gospels, so that we are fed, changed and equipped to proclaim his holy name in both word and deed, for this after all is the mandate of the Church; we are the Church of Christ.
But how can we do this? How in this place can we become people of the word; people fed each and every day by Jesus and the words of Scripture? Well, I know of only one way: prayerful reading of Scripture. So let me invite you to do something: as you leave Church today, and every Sunday, take the pew sheet home with you, don’t give it back in, and spend five or ten minutes each day simply reading through the passages and see what strikes you, challenges you or even affirms you. I think if you do this it just might, over time, make all the difference in the world, Amen.