A Sermon Preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Montréal
St. Matthew’s Day 2014
The Rev. Canon Eric Beresford, D.D.
While I was a theological student, one of the “characters” around the university was a faculty member called Dennis Nineham. In addition to his well known if controversial commentary on the Gospel of Mark he was famous for how he read the scriptures in Keble College chapel. At the end he would say, “This, is the word of the Lord?” And if we are honest we are all of us tempted to do something like that from time to time. I remember early on in Rhonda’s time at the cathedral she banned me from sitting too close to where she would read the gospel because I reacted, not quite as quietly as I meant to, to something that was being read one day. As a preacher myself my thought had been, “I’d like to hear how Paul is going to handle that.” Thus the harrumph!
Still I suspect that even if you are far more polite than me, if you are honest, there are times when scripture startles you, disturbs you, and even, on occasion, offends you, and when that happens it is tempting to take the easy way out, and pay less attention, or to dismiss what we have read as the ignorance of an earlier age. For many these occasions make it hard to really affirm with today’s Epistle that, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful…” Matters are made worse if we take the advice of the fist reading from Proverbs as an instruction to suspend our own powers of thought and rely on biblical teaching as some sort of set of oracles from God to be received simply, and embraced in an uncomplicated, wholehearted way. But in saying this we are already I think beginning to get to the heart of the problem. What are the scriptures? How are they supposed to function in our lives, in the life of the Church? How do they shape Christian faith, life, and practice? Can they continue to do so when they speak as it were from another world?
Part of the problem is that many of our ways of thinking about scripture, even for those of us who are not naïve readers of scripture, can be naïve in our understanding of how Scripture came to be, or the role of scripture in the church. When we think of reading scripture we tend to think of the individual reader, book on knee reading passages, trying to understand what they mean for them individually, and how to live them in their lives, but this is a completely odd view seen in the light of the long history of the scriptures in the church. In the first place, until the advent of printing around the time of the reformation whole bibles were comparatively rare. Even most churches would not have had a complete collection of the books of the Old and New Testaments. They would have had the passages included in the lectionary in the missal, and they may have had individual books, particularly the Gospels, which would then be processed before being read. And I want to make two points about this. First that for most of the history of the church the primary way we encountered scripture was not by reading at all, it was by hearing, it was by hearing the scripture read out loud. Second it was heard mostly within the context of the liturgy of the church. And if you think about it these two little facts have a significant bearing on how we think about scripture.
When we see ourselves as readers, we in a sense put ourselves in the drivers seat. We are the interpreters, the ones who make sense of it. We sit with this book, open in front of us and we work to determine its meaning for us. But in liturgy we are cast in a different role, we are hearers; we are addressed by the word in the words of scripture. Secondly it is no longer just me and Jesus – it is no longer this individual struggle to understand the meaning of scripture, the struggle that led to the suggestion that in Protestantism every reader was his own pope – because as both Luther and Calvin in fact affirmed, the primary place where we encounter the meaning of scripture, the place that might give shape and meaning to our private reading, is in the community of God’s people, in the church.
Now I am not here arguing against private bible reading. I think daily bible reading is a good and important discipline for all Christians. We should all seek to grow in our familiarity with the bible. What I am saying is that our ability to do that helpfully, in ways that help us to grow and do not require us to close our minds, is shaped by our participation in the community where we hear the bible together, where we wrestle with what the bible means, together.
And gives me the opportunity to move a little deeper into our epistle today. “All scripture is inspired by God it says” “And is useful for teaching…” I want to suggest that how we hear those phrases is once again unhelpfully shaped by the image of the solo reader.
“All scripture is inspired by God” We have come to assume that this must be a reference to how the bible came to be written. But this exclusive link between inspiration and authorship is actually rather modern. In any case, given what I have said about how the scripture is read this is not so clear after all. For a start this text could not really be referring to our New Testament, which was still in the process of being written and collected. And both of those processes are important. Because for anyone with a sense of history we know that this book, which shapes the church, was itself put together by the church. The decisions about which books were to be included in the bible was a long and sometimes controversial process in which the unfolding of the basic commitments of the church and the decisions of which books were to be included took place together. Now there are questions here that would take us way beyond a sermon, but my point is really a simple one, inspiration cannot only be about how the bible came to be written. Indeed, the process by which the bible came to be shaped suggests that it is at least as much, if not more, about how the texts of scripture address me, how they speak to me, how they become for me a place where I am addressed by God, how the church came to recognize these texts as a place where they heard themselves addressed by the voice of God. Again from our reading inspired is the translation of θεοπνευστος, God breathed – bearing the breath of God. It needn’t refer to some theory of divine dictation at all!
When we turn to the impact of scripture on our lives again the first claim might suggest the image of the solo reader looking for information. The bible is useful for teaching it says. But actually again the word διδασκαλιον, and this little word is not really about learning information, facts about God or the world, it is about being shaped as we are addressed by God. It is the word used in ancient Greek to describe the training of the chorus for the Greek theatre, it is about training us for our roles, shaping us for the life we are called to and this is spelled out in what follows. Scripture involves reproof, it involves the experience of seeing our lives afresh under the call and judgement of God, it is about correction, about what elsewhere we would call repentance, the change that takes place in our lives when we come face to face with the work and presence of God – it is about training in righteousness – about the new possibilities for life that are opened up for us in the life, teaching, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.
What all this means, can be seen in our other readings. In the Gospel where Jesus calls Matthew to follow him, we see in concrete terms what it is to be addressed by God. Now I am not simply referring to the fact that Matthew left his old life to follow Jesus. I am referring to the astonishing fact that Jesus called Matthew in the first place. When we read this passage it is easy to trivialize it because of course we still bear a grudge against tax collectors, but this is something quite different. Matthew was a collaborator with the hated, oppressive, Romans. The context was one of military occupation by a foreign power and Matthew was a traitor. More than that as a “tax collector he dealt in idolatry, in the coinage that bore the idolatrous image of the “divine” Emperor. He would not have been simply disliked, he would have been despised, and completely outside of any self-respecting Jewish society. No wonder the religious leaders reacted so strongly, but Jesus turns their self importance on its head, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Again what is this passage about, it is about the word – the divine word that addresses us, the word that breaks down our easy prejudices and assumptions that will not allow us to judge without hearing the judgement we are under – the word that always reaches out into the unacceptable, surprising places where God goes though we are too proud to. It is about the word that calls us into new communities where our old easy assumptions of inside and out are called into question, communities where we belong not because of any quality we have, or any skill, but simply and solely because we are addressed and called by God. It is a passage that acts out precisely the sort of dynamic that I have been talking about today as the address of scripture.
Again this reading from proverbs which could be a sermon to itself, in the end is not about obedience to some external set of rules but about the law that is written on our hearts “the tablet of our hearts” a reference to the stone tablets that Moses brought down the mountain but now not external but internal. This does not mean that we simply peer in to our “deepest soul” to understand what God wants, we are still in this passage being made and remade, we are still being addressed by God, prompted by God, guided by God and in this process the commandments act as prods, preventing us from settling into easy solutions, preventing us from ever having the sense that we have arrived, that our faith is a possession rather than a journey.
All scripture is God-Breathed. It is that through which God breathes into our lives, challenging, sustaining, shaping, giving us glimpses of the Joy to which he calls us and warning us against the fantasies, including the fantasies about God, which so easily distract and divert us. And that happens at least as much in those passages that at first cause us to stumble because there we are forced to stop and listen again, listen if anything more carefully. If what I have been saying this morning is true then clearly to talk about scripture as the word of God is about as far as one can get from the picture of scripture as a possession, even worse, as a weapon. It is not something we use towards others, but that through which God speaks towards us, May we respond, as did the young Samuel, “Speak Lord, your servant listens.”