Today we call Bible Sunday, a day in the year when we especially give thought and reflect on the importance and meaning to what we call “The Bible”
If we were to ask ourselves “what is the Bible” we may get a variety of answers. Furthermore if we were to ask people outside the church we would get another set of answers.
For us it usually comes in the form of a book, though for many today it may be on line or other digital form.
If we were able to ask the early Christians what was the Bible they would give a very different answer to us. For Jewish Christians growing up in the 1st century (Jesus own day and beyond) the Bible as we know it simply did not exist! Strange to think this I know.
Scriptures did exist and the scrolls were regularly read publically yet as we hear in Nehemiah they were always read … with interpretation. The Word of God was never restricted to what was written on the page the Word of God included “the interpretation”.
The Jewish collection of books (what we might describe loosely as “Old Testament” or Tenakh in Hebrew, was not fixed until well into the second century. There are just 5 Torah Book, 13 Prophet books and 4 collections of hymns. (22 books all told)
The New Testament as we know it was argued about for years and consensus was hard to come by and it was not until the end of the fourth century that something was decided and in fact a further deliberation came in the late 16th century that a decision was finally made on the New Testament Canon.
This also excludes the situation that some even today think the Apocrypha is or is not acceptable!! So we cannot even reach a conclusion today!
It may seem strange to us who have been so used to thinking of the New Testament that early Christians did not grow up with what we now simply take for granted. Even the thought that you did not know the gospel of Luke for example might make a huge difference to how we would approach Christmas! And many Christians did indeed not know Luke, and others who may have known Luke would not have known Matthew etc… everything was much more localized.
Perhaps one way of illustrating this for our minds today is how some churches use one hymn book, and others a different one…. Think how attached we become to hymn books!? (perhaps a poor example)
Furthermore we also have that key to scripture as Nehemiah witnessed and also the Ethiopian Eunuch…. Interpretation…. How can we understand without interpretation? This has always been key to scripture throughout Judaism and Christianity.
It goes without saying that Martin Luther’s battle cry “Sola Scriptura” Scripture alone was actually worked out with very rigorous teaching and interpretation…. Even if only to cope with clear contradictions and anomalies we come across in the differing texts.
Biblical Scholarship particularly from the 19th century onwards has opened the pages of scripture even further, and new ancient texts have been discovered since then too. Our current Bible is sourced from hundreds if not thousands of different textual sources, words have been poured over for years now to bring fresh understanding to a text we many have believed to be set in stone.
Whoever wrote the epistle we call, to the Hebrews was probably correct when they wrote:
“the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Bear in mind of course that even this was written before a word of the Gospels as we know them had been penned.
I do indeed believe in the strength and wisdom of what we may call the Word of God….. indeed I feel this more today than I did in the 1980’s and 1990s. The Bible is truly fascinating and gripping, but it only so for me because of study and learning about its intricacies. The more I read and learn the more I am able to inwardly digest what is expressed and said. It certainly takes patience too!
The Bible has forever been a text formulated and interpreted by countless believers in countless situations. It is amazing how this is. It is a lifeless thing to me without the people who read it and live through it. The Bible this way does indeed become living and active.
The Bible without a believer is empty… as illustrated by that interesting film called the Book of Eli.. the blind man who learnt by heart the words and in this way was able to save the text from destruction.
And, as has been wonderfully expressed elsewhere
“Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some person ever reads.”
On this Bible Sunday let us give thanks for God’s word living and breathing through us. The text is nothing without the believer.
At first sight today’s collects and readings feel pretty good.
Positive things about Christ reconciling the world and proclaiming the good news of love, about living in a Christian community where Jesus is present amongst them.
This is the church at its best and life giving, a real beacon of light and hope to the community.
But we know that living with love is not easy, it is not always comfortable. Furthermore Reconciliation is never easy, and as to having Jesus present that is sometimes one step too far to imagine.
Matthew, as we know, writing for an emerging church, one that was already struggling with its boundaries and structures describes the process within the church for tackling disagreements.
Perhaps it is comforting to realise that the church has always had to deal with disagreements? It is good to know that we are normal when we have disagreements.
Down the centuries and even today we see the Christian Church separated and divided, sometimes bitterly, when reconciliation has failed… and yet reconciliation is what we are told to pursue.
As I said earlier living with love is sometimes not easy, and sometimes it feels more natural to fall out , to disagree and never to look back.
“We agreed to disagree”, is often said between gritted teeth, and with bitterness and recrimination.
Reconciliation never comes by sweeping things under a carpet, and sometimes it is necessary to face confrontation. Also a confrontation without the purpose of reconciliation is a sad thing to behold.
Matthew reminds the church that reconciliation with Christ present holding the parties together is the place to end. Where two or three even are together even in disagreement I am still with them in their midst. (to paraphrase the gospel reading)
The Scottish Episcopal Church has mirrored this very well I feel in our discussions over same ex marriage, and a lot of us have learnt a huge amount in this process.
What happens then when we get to the point of disagreeing so much that exclusion and division are the result… we are to treat that person (that group) as if they were a gentile and tax collector.
Does this mean we are justified to treat them differently? On the one hand some might say yes… like shaking the dust off your feet, walking by on the other side etc etc.
Let us pause and think for a while though…. There is a catch I this….
How did Jesus treat Tax collectors and Gentiles?
Matthew was a Tax collector! Gentiles were healed and made whole. Love was no less because of what they were.
Paul we learnt last week was a hot headed self-opinionated man. Yet he probably knew and recognised human frailties well. He will have seen human frailty (sin) at work in both Jewish and Christian Communities. He will have witnessed, and even we know taken part in, the bad treatment of those we are convinced are simply wrong.
Yet he goes on to tell us “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves fulfils the law.”
Oh how hard this is to take on board because we always want to look for the “but” or “except.”
Loving those different is hard.
We are often clueless what loving might mean, because we are struggling hard even to love ourselves.
Loving those different is challenging because it will inevitably mean learning something about them. It will mean time to understand. (and we have so little time don’t we so often) It will mean being patient with the other.
Would any of us be able to “love in the abstract” without knowing . Can you imagine someone loving you in the abstract? It really hardly happens.
We can imagine God’s love and reconciliation and healing only because we believe God knows us deeply. This is precisely what makes his loving so powerful and convincing. This is what draws us to his love and holds us there, even when we recognise our sin.
Mahatma Ghandi spoke about the need to hang on to Love, the nectar of life. He said
“Through the heart we may come to know the Love of God; through the heart we may become the love of God”
“Love is reckless in giving away, oblivious in what it gets in return. Love wrestles with the world as with the self and ultimately gains mastery over all other feelings.”
God help us today to proclaim the good news of your Love
Although the readings today follow on, from last Sunday, both in Romans and the Matthew’s Gospel, today I am going to mostly concentrate on Romans.
I found the reading as we have just heard it, is difficult to follow, as Paul rapidly fires twelve instructions in quick succession, which makes it quite confusing when you first read, or hear them.
If we look back in Acts at Paul’s early life and beliefs as a Pharisee, he appeared to be more militant and passionate than many Pharisees. This was evident from the time he watched the stoning of Stephen, and his subsequent persecution of the Church in Jerusalem
Paul believed that to torture, throw into prison, or even kill those followers of the Way was, as he saw it, essential to preserve the lives of the Jewish people. He was passionate about this work and greatly feared.
He was going to do the same in Damascus. Then came his transformation on the road to Damascus. we are told he had a vision of Jesus, who asked him why he was persecuting him.
From today’s passage Paul appears to be just as passionate, but now fueled
by his belief that Jesus Christ is the Way. He is writing to believers in Rome and appears quite worried about them.
He goes on to give instructions for the way they should live their lives and, by their example, be able to encourage and teach others.
Paul is asking a lot from them, most of which will not be easy. He is writing to those, to whom he appealed in verses 1,2, just before this passage, to present themselves as a living sacrifice and be transformed by the renewing of their minds.
Now he is giving them ways to live, which rely on their renewed minds, and their ability to discern “the will of God
His words remind me of the “Ten Commandments” but with a difference. He starts by exhorting them to remember “Love is genuine, hate evil, and hold fast to what is good”.
Then Paul goes on with his instructions for the way they should live their lives. He is encouraging them to be alongside others and to show love in all situations they face.
How should they live?
How should we live ?
The first verse today is about love, and love is throughout the reading, they are to show mutual love for each other, in extending hospitality, living in harmony, and peaceably with all.
What I think most of us would find more difficult would be to bless those who bully or persecute us, if it happened to us – perhaps by bullying at school or In the workplace
Could we offer food and drink to our enemies.
If to love each other, includes our enemies, there are times I think we would find that very difficult to follow, particularly when we hear of tragedies and conflict in the news, on television or radio.
How do we feel about those who are carrying out atrocities around the world
It is very difficult to think that we should be praying for those who are killing others because they are not the same as themselves, or don’t have the same beliefs, or are in the way of their insatiable desire to have power.
It is easier to pray for those suffering from them.
We need to remember that In his words to them, we should also be thinking about our lives and how we live.
Paul tells them to realise that their lives will include periods of suffering, and that they will need patience, and to persevere in prayer. It is the same for us. The times we need to pray most are the times when life is difficult. They are also the times when it can be hardest to pray.
He is not offering an easy life, but as in today’s Gospel reading, to follow Jesus is to deny themselves, pick up their cross, and it was never going to be easy.
As disciples, they should expect the good and the bad times.
Paul also tells them there will be times of hope and to rejoice, and they should rejoice when others rejoice, and weep when others weep. We should do the same. We should show love and empathy with the joys, and sorrows of others
Today Paul has been talking about love and being alongside all at all times, the good and the bad. He presents the Lord as being a loving God until we arrive at verse 19.
Then, Paul gives us a different view of God. God as the avenger, and he quotes “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” and they, and we, are to leave it to him.
But why in the middle of spending the rest of the passage in encouraging the Romans to love all, which at that time would have included the non Christian population of Rome, and the surrounding area, did Paul address vengeance by the Lord, as being so important.
I don’t find that easy to understand
He goes on to talk about giving food and drink to their enemies. Also he has already in verse 17, told them not to repay evil for evil, but they should think about what is noble in the sight of all.
There is no doubt that Paul’s words to the Romans would have given them a strong message as to what was expected of them, if they were to follow the teachings of Jesus, and help to spread the word to the Gentiles in their area.
We should also think about his words, as much of what he says is relevant today.
It is important to be able to laugh and enjoy each other’s company. It is equally important to be there for each other,and others through times of sorrow and distress
The message from Paul for us to remember, is “Let love be genuine” in all we say and do, and his final words,
“Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil by good