Bible Sunday, October 1998
Today is Bible Sunday and an opportunity therefore for each of us to reflect on the part the Bible plays in our own lives. I suspect that we sometimes regard the Bible in the same way in which we regard prayer - we believe in it but find it hard to get down to, and when we do we find it confusing and discouraging.
Well Im not here today to make you, or me, feel worse about our neglect of the Bible - but I hope to raise a debate in your mind, and among us as a community, about our attitude to the Bible and the part it plays in our lives as Christians. I want what I have to say to be shaped by the text from the New Testament reading this morning with which I began. Reading the Scriptures is about finding encouragement and hope. That was why the Hebrew Scriptures were important to Paul. In them he found strength and insight into the nature of God and his ways that brought him hope.
But I want to begin with a more basic question about our Christian life. What is authoritative for you? What is authoritative for us at St Peters as we try to live in the light of the knowledge of God and in the love of Christ? What shapes or challenges our thinking and our beliefs? For some Christians the answer would be easy - it is the Bible. If its in the Bible then it has to be taken very seriously and has authority. You do not have to be a fundamentalist to believe this. It means that the Bible is not just an interesting source book for the history of religions, but a source of authority for you now. Others would find another answer springing to their lips - for them it is the churchs teaching that carries real authority. That teaching may be a Papal encyclical or simply "what I was taught as a child". This may not be something dogmatic, but just an awareness that I would have to be very persuaded to go against the teachings of the church. So, for you, where do you locate your authority? Or have we drifted with the climate of the age to a position which asserts that the only authority I acknowledge is my own opinion? That what is true for me is what I happen to think, and my opinion is the only authority I need? Now this cannot be an option for a those called to be disciples. The word itself implies something or someone who is a source of authority for you.
Scripture, tradition and reason
What then is the Church of Englands position on this? Here, as elsewhere, the C of E is of course very moderate and balanced! Three authorities are recognised - Scripture, Tradition and Reason. The inclusion of reason reminds us that we are not to be fundamentalist in our believing but always in an open and thinking dialogue with both scripture and traditional teaching. It does not go so far as to suggest that reason is supreme and the final arbiter, nor does it give grounds for reducing reason to personal opinion about scripture or tradition. Reason, rather, is the shared reflective thinking and praying of the whole church as tries to relate scripture and tradition to contemporary concerns. This reminds us also that God does not give us truth on a plate. Truth is not simply doing what it says in a book word for word, nor simply repeating everything that was done in the past. God asks us to work with his Holy Spirit as we read scripture and study the traditions we inherit, so that we might discern his purposes today.
The voice of God
But to go back to scripture in particular. The Bible is not one book but a collection of writings of very different styles and aims, reflecting humanitys engagement with God over thousands of years. It is a book of stories, cries of anguish, celebrations of hope, the precious memories of God in human lives, and pithy saying of wisdom about life touched with an earthy realism. Gathered together they carry great weight, wisdom and beauty simply as reflections of human experience. But the Christian community has recognised in these books Gods own voice echoing through the written words of both individuals and groups of faithful people. So they have come to be not merely words of beauty and wisdom but words which have a unique authority, for behind these words is the Word of God.
God addressing us
So how should we use the Bible? First I think with an awareness that because Gods own voice echoes through the written words of its pages it is not just a collection of historical books but that it addresses us now as we read it. We should listen to it or read it with a spirit of expectation that God may address us here and now through its words.
No instant answers
Secondly we must be careful not to use it as a magic book. It is not there to be flicked open at random to get instant answer to a problem. It is not there to be stripped of useful texts to be hurled like grenades at opponents to win a point. God speaks through history and through human stories. This is how he reveals himself, in human lives and circumstances. So we cannot pick the Bible off the shelf for instant answers - we have to work with it. No doubt we wish sometimes that the Bible was just a set of rules to be applied, or a philosophical treatise answering all our ultimate questions, but it demands more from us than that - and in a sense treats us more seriously than that. Gods authority does not crush us with dogma or rules but invites us to discover and live his truth today.
Thirdly we are fortunate to live in an age and in a country where there are many useful guides and helps to reading and understanding the Bible - and we ought to take advantage of that fact. New translations can bring a freshness to familiar texts. The Sunday readings here at church provide passages to take with you into the week. Why not glance at them, take from them a phrase a day, and see what light it throws on the events of that day.
In the end it is a still a question for us as individuals to address - what authority does the Bible have for us? What we cannot avoid is the experience of the Christian community: