Lent 1 – 2023 – Reading Scripture
One of the things many will do in Lent is to spend a little more time reading scripture. For many people I think the bible remains both familiar in some ways, and yet a little overwhelming in others. That is hardly surprising as the bible is over a million words, in 66 books, written by more than 66 people over almost 3 millennia. It contains examples of almost every style of writing known – song, poem, letter, history, law, advice, and more unique forms such a the Gospels – which contain some history but carefully ordered, so as to be trusted repositories of divine truth, and set a framework of belief to be handed down by the community of those who follow the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. The early church would not settle on the contents of the bible for nearly 300 years, and initially the impetus to write at all came from the reality that eye witnesses to the events of Jesus’s life and ministry were dying – somewhat unexpectedly to those witnessing it as they had focused on an idea of the second coming, and believed they were living in the end times. The bible as we know it now contains portions of the Jewish scriptures known to Jesus, but by no means all. So where do we start?
Luckily for us others have puzzled over this before. In the life of the church from the daily office, to Sunday worship, and the feasts and festivals of the church over time lectionaries of readings have been complied, to guide us, and importantly to make sure that we experience the fullness of what the bible has to offer, not just stay on our favorite bits. A collecting prayer draws together the theme, then in its fullest version there are appropriate texts from the OT, the Psalms, the Epistles of the NT and finally the Gospels. If you follow the weekly round in worship then in the course of a year you will have covered the majority of major stories and events in what is called the ‘history of our salvation’, and as the years go by then this knowledge should by revisiting become more familiar. However I think it very important how we read the bible too, ask how it has been used and read historically – not forgetting that for much of the time in question literacy rates were low, and the scriptures for the first 1500 years or so were not read by lay people, but to them by the clergy. I worry today that the richness of the bible’s heritage is being subsumed in fundamentalist readings of scripture which to my mind go looking for proof for things already believed, rather than find in scripture what God is trying to tell us. Indeed to my mind a literalist reading, fails to do justice to the true context of how the bible came to be. We make a mistake I. think if we think this is some form of handbook, or rule book, it is the inspired and living Word of God, it has been read and loved and understood in a multitude of ways for its whole existence.
I was drawn to this topic both by todays readings, the Genesis story and the Gospel which require us to read them in other than in a literal sense,
Now in Genesis, the story we heard this morning is familiar, it has become widely known, but I would argue little understood. Firstly, and sorry to tell you this, but it isn’t the only version of the creation story in Genesis. The other older more simple one basically states that God was the creator, did so out of love not necessity, and in so doing evidenced his deep connection to and love of all he created. By the time of King Josiah in the 7th C bc they were re-building the great Temple, and making all kinds of reforms and trying to set out their faith in more formal codes and rules, lots of priests and civil servants wanting to take control. So what had been a simple story of acknowledging the divine as the creator becomes this heavily laden story which the vast majority of people know, but also accept not to be literally true. A simple creation story of love becomes an explanation of the origins of sin, but instead of that being a simple explanation of the fact that we are both spiritual and earthly beings wrestling with that tension, and you guessed it Adam and Eve wanted to use their minds to think, and of course women are to blame. They end up banished from paradise and Eve is the cause of all the pain and suffering of women in their role of child-bearing and motherhood. No surprisingly this hasn’t gone down well with contemporary feminists, nor many more. Does it really explain God’s intentions in Creation, or does it speak to moment in Israelite history where powerful men were setting rules?
There is a wonderful collect which is used on bible Sunday which urges us to give thanks for scripture, and to ‘ read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ the word of God. I wholeheartedly agree, but I want people to understand what treasure they are dealing with, how much is lost or misunderstood if we don’t give proper weight to how the bible came to be, and what its authors felt its purposes were? It is a very controlling urge to insist that there is only one way to read and understand a biblical text, certainly not an approach that would have been familiar to Jesus who taught as much by non-scriptural stories as he did by quoting the prophets and OT writers. I was ordained with a priest who preached on a Sunday but also included a handout, in case you were foolish enough you use your own God-given brain and mind to be guided by the Spirit to understood scripture, he gave you the approved answers. I encourage you to disagree with me, let the Spirit guide your reading of the bible, and to get excited by just how amazing, endlessly inspiring and extraordinary a gift it truly is. It is for lifting people up, not pressing them down – enjoy it!