Bible Sunday Sermon. 2014.
I have told the story before about how when I was interviewed for the role of priest or this parish I was asked a question about the Bible, by our archdeacon, Stephen Roberts
Carole was there, but I doubt she can remember all the details.
The question was. Which bible verse sums up for you what the Christian gospel is all about?
And I said I have not got one, and then went on to explain to him, as tactfully as possible that I didn’t think that was a very useful question.
Today’s gospel includes a text which illustrates the issue. It’s one that most of us love and easily relate too.
A Pharisee asked Jesus what’s the most important commandment? and Jesus replied. Well, , the greatest, The Muhammad Ali if you like, of commandments is You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, but the second is ‘ you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
Many Christians would probably take that as one of their favourite texts. It’s all about believing in God and being good and kind to people isn’t it? A simple but perfect summary of the Christian Gospel?
But others might prefer other biblical verses.
Martin Luther, who kicked off the Reformation, in 1517, was particularly attracted to St Paul’s letter to the Romans. And that was because of a particular dilemma in his world, something which he wrestled with deep in his own being and made the Christian life complicated and stressful for many Christian people.
Christ and the Church had always taught that a key element of faith was the promise of the forgiveness of sins, but in Luther’s day this had become so tied up with practices such as confession to a priest and going on pilgrimages and fasting, that there seemed to be an insurmountable barrier between the human soul and God.
Getting to God to feel a sense of his direct love and care had become almost impossible, priests and penances etc functioning like border guards for people fleeing persecution or call centre waiting queues. You made a lot of effort to get through, but with no certainty of success.
Luther found the message of Romans exhilarating and liberating. He found there various passages which implied that personal faith was the key.
That God didn’t forgive people because they had completed an impossible spiritual obstacle course, but because they turned to him in trust with honesty about who they were.
The message is that God saves, people don’t have to save themselves.
Many Christians today, in the Reformation tradition will see St Paul’s letter to the Romans, rather than Matthew 22 as the key Christian text, that unlocks the Gospel.
Sometimes this goes to extremes, so that Paul’s ideas are given equal or greater importance than Jesus’.
And if you meet anyone who in any discussion of religion starts quoting the 2nd letter of Paul to Timothy to trump something you have to say.
All Scripture is inspired by God , you might well be in the company of a someone you might want to label a fundamentalist, who will be convinced that the world was created in the recent past, or that the Bible is a kind of divine instruction manual.
They might be driven by hostility to evolutionary theory or by a need for clear rules for living, but those words, all Scripture is inspired by God means for them that the Bible has absolute authority in all areas, including morality and science.
The over-used and usually misused Sufi parable of the elephant in the room might be helpful here. The original point of the story was that when it comes to religious truth and the human understanding of God, it is impossible from one perspective to see the whole.
The blind men who each had only one part of the elephant within reach were not stupid nor dishonest; it was perfectly reasonable for the one who was touching the beast’s leg to say it was like a pillar, and the one holding its ear to think he had a hairy carpet in his grip.
They were not all wrong, they were simply only partially right.
It’s when the person with tunnel vision thinks they have got the whole picture that real evil can happen.
In an interview a few weeks ago the bishop of London, Richard Chartres said something very interesting.
‘ The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women. It’s that it is spiritually incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us. It has reduced religion from a journey of many dimensions and parts to a set of ideas that might be encapsulated in a neat formula.’
In other words we tend to reduce religious truth to our horizon. A neat formula which re-assures us that we have got it taped. But however insightful and true our horizon is we are always in danger of missing the elephant.
I am convinced that all of these favourite bits of the Bible are true.
I believe that Scripture is Inspired by God, and that St Paul’s letter to the Romans does powerfully bust open the notion that salvation- the way to get to know God- is via soul breaking moral effort, but on the contrary is a gift from God to people.
And I also believe that loving our neighbour is essential.
But none alone is sufficient and tells the whole story. The Bible is a rich and complicated narrative, as is the Christian tradition, and as indeed our own lives as we seek after God, day by day, year by year.
The hymns we sing today make the same point via song.
Morning has broken reminds us that we live in a marvellous world created and sustained by a loving God.
Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire reminds us off our need for and the power of spiritual inspiration.
Be thou my vision is about seeking to see the world and live in it with God’s perspective.
And Here I am Lord reinforces all those insights and celebrates God’s call to do his work of mending broken hearts and loving our neighbours in practical ways.
I don’t think we notice sometimes how richly hymns articulate and encourage our spiritual longings, but just like the Bible they don’t let us settle for a little picture of God; they tell a complex but joyous story, about our lives being built enriched and transformed by a loving God.