SJF • Last Epiphany C 2007 • Tobias Haller BSGWe come now to the end of the Epiphany season, and our Gospel reading ends on a note that resounds as an echo to the Gospel reading with which the season began. On that first Sunday after the Epiphany we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus — and commemorated our own. The Gospel for that day ended with the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Today we commemorate Christ’s transfiguration on the mountain, where he reveals himself to his three closest chosen disciples. And again the voice of God speaks on the mountain, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
The commandment to “listen to him” is not just for Peter, James and John; it is given to us as well; we too are commanded to listen to the voice of Jesus the Son of God. And we obey this commandment in many ways in the church.
Most importantly, we listen for the voice of God in the Holy Scriptures, and we are most attentive to God and readiest to hear his voice as we experience the reading of the Bible week by week in church, in the context of our worship, where our voices blend together, not simply reading and hearing and listening, but singing, praying and celebrating as well.
There is much debate these days about Scripture and its meaning and interpretation and authority. Sad to say, some people seem to want to reduce the Bible to a kind of Berlitz phrase book where you can get all the answers — especially answers telling other people what to do! There are others who want to treat the Bible like a reference book you pull down off the shelf only when you need it, rather than as a constant companion on our daily pilgrimage. And I want to reflect today on how we best make use of the Bible — not as a stopgap — but as a guide for our lives, and a companion with us on our journey: a lamp unto our feet and a compass for our pilgrimage.
It is first of all important to note that while we call the Bible the Word of God, we do not call it the words of God. For unlike the Qur’an, which according to Muslim belief was written by one man as a single volume at the direct dictation of Allah, our Bible was recorded by many hands — human hands — over many centuries. And only the tablets from the mountaintop are said to have been written directly by the hand of God — all the rest comes to us from human hands. The scriptures were assembled over many years from the experiences of many people from the whispers God whispered in their ears, or the shouts God shouted from the hillsides, but also including and expressing their own reflections and history, their own thoughts, prayers, and opinions. Our Bible does not speak with just a single voice. It is even more than a dialogue between God and one faithful interpreter. It is rather a chorus of voices, some of which claim to speak for God, but many of which represent not God’s voice but a human response to God. In this mix of many voices we need to listen very carefully, and take care to distinguish between what is truly God’s word for us, and what may have been intended as God’s word for someone; or to discern what isn’t God’s word at all, but merely a human opinion.
Sometimes the Scripture writers themselves make it relatively easy for us to tell the difference. When the prophets say, “Thus says the Lord,” we ignore them at our peril. Other times it is equally clear that the scripture is not recording God’s words, but human words, words spoken in response to God. Often the scripture is plain historical record, as in the books of the Kings and Chronicles; often the writer of the particular passage is offering us his or her own wisdom or prayer, as in Proverbs or the Psalms. When David says, “I called to the Lord in my distress,” it is clearly David who is distressed, and David who is speaking — not God. Similarly, Saint Paul often lets us in on his thoughts, and in a few cases, as in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, he is takes great pains to note the difference between God’s commandments and his own opinion. He wrties, “I say — I and not the Lord” as he gives his opinion on what Christians married to nonbelievers should or shouldn’t do. Saint Paul would no doubt be scandalized to hear people claiming — as some do today — that everything he wrote or said should be treated as if it was “the Word of God.” He had the humility to confess that he often spoke with the “tongues of mortals” and was more often a clanging gong than he wished he was!
And this is where the difficulties arise. For often, discerning God’s voice among the many voices that speak to us in Scripture is not so simple. Most texts to not come with handy labels saying, “Thus says the Lord,” on the one had or “Peter said, ‘Let us make three dwellings’” on the other — and Scripture attests that Peter didn’t know what he was saying! And even when the prophet does say, “Thus says the Lord,” how can we be sure that what the prophet speaks is truly God’s word. Scripture records at least one incident in 1 Kings chapter 22, when the prophets all speak wrongly — 400 of them promise victory to the king, claiming, “Thus says the Lord.” And when one lone prophet warns that their promises are mistaken, they turn on him and literally slap him upside the face and have him put in jail!
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So a large part of the church’s task is to help its many members with how best to understand and act upon the saving message the Scripture holds for us. This is why the Bible, in which God speaks to us through many voices, is best heard and understood in the church, the gathered assembly which is the body of Christ, and of which we are individual members.
This is not to say that we should not also do our own personal reading of the Bible — and I hope all of you have this discipline as part of your Christian walk; and if not, may I recommend it would be an excellent thing to take up during Lent, which is about to begin this Wednesday!
But private reading of the Scripture is never enough by itself: it is in the interchange that takes place in the church, the ability of each member to say, “I think this is what it means” that we come to better understandings than we could come to on our own — for the Scripture is not a matter of any one individual’s interpretation, but rather the gathered wisdom of the members of the church comparing notes, as we seek together to grasp at God’s meaning. It is in the church, which is to say, in Christ, that as Saint Paul said, the veil is lifted from our minds so that we can together understand the Scripture.
Still, it is obvious to anyone who reads the papers there are still disagreements as to what Scripture says, what it means, and what it means for us. It has often been said that if the Scripture were plain and clear there wouldn’t be so much division and dissension among Christians! There is scarcely a verse of Scripture that has not been disputed at some time or another — even something as seemingly straightforward as “Thou shalt not kill” has been debated in causes as remote as capital punishment and a “just” war.
However, within our Anglican tradition, we have been given a rare opportunity to continue to discuss the meaning of Scripture for us, for we Anglicans — exceptionally among Christian bodies — take very seriously Saint Paul’s words: we know only in part; we do not claim certainty; or infallibility, as I mentioned last week: and we have proclaimed from the Reformation on that we believe the Scriptures to be “sufficient unto salvation” — that is, not that the Scripture is infallible or inerrant, but that the Scripture, as the Prayer Book says on page 868, “containeth all things necessary to salvation.” We have the faith and hope that even though we make mistakes, God will lift the veil to help us understand his will for us, sufficiently to the end which he intends: which is our salvation.
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But even with the veil thus partially removed by faith and hope, we still have at hand the difficult task of understanding as best we can what God means for the church and the world, to find the voice of God among the many voices both in Scripture and in the church itself. Richard Hooker, the sixteenth century theologian and single most important architect of what we now call Anglicanism, often referred to this process as “sifting” the Scripture. And this is a useful analogy for the task.
Some years ago a friend of composer John Cage sent him and his collaborator David Tudor: a box each of assorted Indian spices. Upon opening the packages, they found the lids had come off the spice-jars, and the spices were all mixed together. Cage simply put the whole mess in a corner of his apartment and tried to forget about it, but Tudor set about assembling a selection of sieves of varying sizes, from coarse to extremely fine, and over several weeks sifted through the mixture of spices until he had separated each and every grain back to its original jar. He then went to John Cage and said, “Whevever you’re ready to start on yours, so am I.”
The Scriptures are like those mixed up spices. We have, for example, two creation stories in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis; two accounts of the flood woven together; there are four Gospels that disagree on a number of points — and these are just a few examples of the jumble. Agnostics and atheists look at the jumble and decide they don’t want to bother with it. At the other extreme, Biblical fundamentalists imagine we’re not dealing with various spices at all, just a particularly unusual blended curry. But we Anglicans hold that Scripture is a mixture of many different ingredients, that we can come to understand better as we sift and separate them.
In doing this we have at our disposal a number of “sieves.” I’ve already mentioned the importance of the community of the church, and its faith and hope. Also important is the study of the ancient languages in which the Scriptures were first written. So too is the knowledge of history and culture, to understand that a given turn of phrase may mean something very different in different times and places. Then since we are dealing in all cases with very ancient manuscripts, many of which are damaged, all of which are copies of copies of copies of now lost originals, we look to the study of how manuscripts are edited, and the kinds of mistakes people make when they copy things by hand. Then too the study of the many literary forms in which the Scripture is written can help us understand them better: from the short, sharp wisdom of a proverb, to the extended meditation of a psalm, from the historical narratives to the challenging symbolism of the apocalyptic books like Daniel and Revelation.
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But ultimately there is one final sieve that we will employ if we are truly to understand God’s meaning for us. All the other tools of human wit and wisdom will do no good in passing on God’s message, even the divine gifts of faith and hope will be of no avail, without the most important tool at our disposal. Saint Paul said it best, in words that have challenged the church for nearly two thousand years: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Love is the finest sieve that separates out all the harshness, all of the roughness from the Scripture to leave the pure gold of the Word of God. It smooths the rude accents of anger and self-righteousness with which some of the biblical speakers speak, and it shapes our understanding too as we read the text not to find a weapon against someone with whom we disagree, but an opening for grace and love to thrive and grow.
Remember, beloved, that love is the purpose for which God’s written word came to us. And even more importantly love is the reason God’s Incarnate Word, God’s own beloved Son, came to us to be with us. For just as God gives us the Scripture to guide us, so too God loved the world so much that he gave us his only Son to the end that we should not perish, but have everlasting life. Love is God’s sufficient purpose for us; love is also thesufficient means by which God comes to us in word and in person, and love is the means by which we can begin to come to God, and to some understanding of God’s will for us.
In all of our reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the Scripture, let our minds be seasoned with the knowledge of God’s love: for it is only in his love that we will understand God and his loving purposes for us. The law has come to an end in Christ. As for prophecies, they will come to an end as well. Only love never ends, the greatest of God’s gifts, incarnate in his own beloved Son, his Chosen one: let us, beloved, do as God commands, and listen to him.+