The Bible and Jesus
Morning Service, to include a baptism, led by our Minister.
This sermon is taken from Luke 24, verses 13-35; 2 Timothy 3, verses 14-17
Holy Habits: Engaging with the Bible
When you leave college, life in the outside world tends to come as a bit of a shock, doesn’t it? For example, when I was training to be a Minister, we were given serious, complex questions to write essays about: the problem of suffering; the question of life after death; the relationship between Christianity and other faiths. And we would read a lot of books, make copious notes and spend long, quiet hours writing essays, getting life after death, suffering and other faiths sorted.
When you come out of college and start working as a Minister, you find that you have to do a lot of your theology “on the hoof.” People will come up to you when you are peering into the freezers at Sainsbury’s and ask whether you think their Muslim neighbours will go to hell; they will catch you in the middle of the Toddler Group and ask why you think God allows people to die of cancer; they will turn to you in a restaurant on a night out and ask why the church “hates gay people;” they will grab you just before a funeral and ask what you think really happens to people when they die.
There is no time to look it up in a book. There is no time to write an essay. You just have to answer on the spot, and bearing in mind that these are not time-wasting questions but issues that are probably causing the person beside you real pain.
It is quite possible that you, too, have been or will be confronted with these sudden questions. Mention at work or when you are out and about tomorrow that you went to church today and you may find someone asking, ‘Isn’t it all a lot of mumbo jumbo? “ Or “I used to go to church but I drifted off and I am nervous of going back on my own.” Or “I have no time for religion ever since my wife died.” Or even “what are our so-called Christian leaders doing taking us into war?”
And you are not sure what to say. And you are afraid of saying the wrong thing.
And it is no good saying, “why do you not go and ask the vicar about it” because a lot of people are allergic to vicars. They do not want to talk to us. They would rather talk to you because you-believe it or not- look normal.
The United Reformed Church has launched a programme called “Walking the Way: Living the life of Jesus today.” It recognises that we are now living in a culture where the majority of people will know virtually nothing about the Christian faith or what goes on in a church. They will have also been fed a great many lies by the media and the only way they stand a chance of learning the truth is through Christian people they know- in other words, you. Walking the Way is about enabling people of faith to share that faith through their lives.
Over the next year or so, we shall be investigating THIS LIST of what are called Holy Habits. Taken from the example of the very earliest Christian church, these Holy Habits, we trust, will build up our faith. For those first Christians, despite living in an actively hostile culture, grew their church beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Faith is not just something that goes on in your head or in your heart. It is about your whole life. Whatever you think you believe or whatever you say you believe, it is what you actually believe that makes you the person you are, living the life you do. Shaping some Holy Habits will help us to clarify what we do really believe and how we live out that belief in our day to day lives. And the first Holy Habit is that of engaging with the Bible.
In the story we heard from Luke’s Gospel, two of Jesus’ friends are walking home feeling thoroughly disillusioned with life and with God. Why? Because the man they had followed and trusted to save the world had been dragged off by vicious, unjust people to be brutally murdered. They could not understand why, if Jesus had been a man of God, God allowed these terrible things to happen to him? And the implications for their own future were looking pretty bleak….. They are so full of despair that, when a stranger starts walking along the road with them, they do not recognise him. We have been there- in a place so dark that no-one and nothing can get through to us.
This man gets them talking about what has happened but rather than try to “cheer them up” with positive thinking, he gets them engaging with their own holy scriptures, which would be the part of the Bible we now call “the Old Testament.” These men were Jews and Jewish boys are brought up to know their Bibles very well.
The stranger takes the stories of their own nation’s history; the writings of people like them seeking God; he shows them the strong theme running right through these scriptures- of suffering being necessary for the birth of new life and they start to understand. Then they reach home, the stranger sits down to a meal with them and breaks bread. Having heard the story, they now see a significant action-bread broken as a human body was broken- and they recognise Jesus Christ himself. “Now we get it! This really was the Son of God ”
They had been offered a source of understanding that came from outside of themselves. They did not have to struggle to pull themselves together, which is not easy when you are in pieces. They were not asked to get their heads round a new theory. They were being told a story, a story of their own people to which they could relate. Then they were shown an action which made sense to them in the light of their recent experiences. And their faith fell into place. “Now we get it! ”
Faith can so easily end up as a purely personal and emotional experience especially in today’s politically correct culture. It becomes only about what you think and how you feel, But this can make faith dangerously subjective because you can turn it into whatever you want it to be and for many people faith surreptitiously becomes little more than a “feel good” experience that justifies a selfish existence.
But faith which goes no further than our emotions will collapse altogether when our emotions are raw and hurting. Where is the joy and confidence and the peace my faith is supposed to bring me?
And a faith which is based only on your emotions will prove totally inadequate if you try to share it with someone else: well, Jesus has given me peace and joy in abundance. But if that person does not sense that same level of peace and joy, what can you say to them?
Jesus was able to get through to those two people because he placed their experience in a wider context. He gave them a story. He showed them a teaching which had been tried and proved by many who had gone before them. And so they “got it.” And, as members of the soon-to-be-born Christian church, they devoted themselves to engaging with the scriptures, re-reading the stories, pondering the teaching, working out how Jesus “fitted in” and took the story to a whole new dimension, shaping their own theology on the hoof, risking imprisonment and death to write down their own part in the story- the section of the Bible we call the New Testament- so that we, future generations, would have a written text to inspire us as we walked the Way.
This is not to say that many people do not have issues with the Bible. They read the account of the world being created in seven days; of God apparently having a temper tantrum and destroying nearly the whole of creation in a great flood; of a disobedient prophet being swallowed by a whale and they say “how do you expect me to believe stuff like this?”
They also hear religious people today using texts of the Bible to inspire war and terrorism; racism and discrimination; a totally unjust and irresponsible social order called “the prosperity Gospel” and they say, understandably, “I cannot buy into this.”
Our second reading came from a letter written by St Paul to Timothy, his young and enthusiastic protegee who was struggling to be a good church leader in what sounded like a difficult church. The first churches were made up of people from all different kinds of backgrounds, cultures and other religions. They did not have nice, friendly, fund-raising Quiz nights; they had stormy theological discussions with everyone shouting at each other as to what was proper Christian teaching and good church order and what was not. Timothy was trying to help these people become a strong, united congregation because outside the church there were Roman, Greek and Jewish secret police just looking for an excuse to close them down.
Paul tells Timothy to hold fast the holy scriptures but he gives him three important pointers in the way he uses them:
1. Remember everything you have learned. Timothy had been brought up from a small child to know his Bible and, as child from a similar background, I can vouch for the value of that upbringing. You are given something far bigger and greater than you.
2.Now think of what you yourself have become convinced of. We are told many things as children but the time comes when we have to sift out for ourselves what we really believe; what we have found to be true in our own experience. We shall find ourselves questioning some of what we have been told about the Bible. And that is no bad thing.
3.Remember the people from whom you learned. We can tell our children right and wrong; good and bad. But they will learn far more from what they see us doing. So if we see someone using the Bible as an excuse to be cruel, violent, unjust, then we would do well to think again about the scripture they have been reading. But if we see someone using the Bible as an inspiration to do good, to suffer bravely, to be kind, then they may well have got hold of the truth there.
The Bible is not a totally accurate history book. There are too many contradictions even within its own pages as to what exactly happened when and where. The Bible is not an infallible scientific manual. Any scientist will tell you that there is no such thing because science is always moving forward in knowledge. The Bible is not an inflexible religious rule book because faith is first and foremost a living relationship with God that will unfold and develop as we walk the way.
But the Bible still deserves to be called “The Word of God” because it was written by people who were actively seeking God and to whom God spoke. They did not always get things right. They did not always listen very carefully. But it is an ongoing story of people like us who asked for, searched for and ultimately found God. It is an ongoing story of God reaching out to the human race and never more completely and totally than in the person of Jesus Christ- his living Word.
“The Bible,” wrote Andrew Roberts, author of the book “Holy habits”, “is not a book to be learned by rote but a living story that we are invited to learn from, enter into and be shaped by so that we, in turn, may be God’s agents of holiness and transformation in the world he loves.” He points to the famous people – Wilberforce, Luther-King, Booth- whose engagement with the Bible led them to instigate great social reforms and to those like the Quaker Cadburys and Rowntrees, who adopted very different business ethics to those of their contemporary sweatshop owners.
God still speaks to us through his Word if we will only read it, listen for his word in these words, share it with one another, test it on each other, learn even from the people who ask us awkward questions, turn to it even when we are quite convinced that it can have nothing to say to us where we are right now.
Maybe I should not finish without making some reference to the elephant in the room – the escalating military action in Syria. How can the Bible help us here?
In the Old Testament there is a lot of justification for war because much of it is about a people trying to claim their territory. But when we come to Jesus Christ in the New Testament, he does not justify violence. He would rather surrender his own body to be broken than raise his hand against another human being. He taught that no permanent good ever comes from using force.
But what Jesus did warn about were lifestyles and cultures that would inevitably lead to the eruption of violence. He was not talking about teenagers having access to knives. He was warning those people living comfortable and apparently blameless lives who take no thought for what is going on in the world around them: who ignore the needs of the poor, who silence the helpless, who turn a blind eye to corruption and exploitation because they have everything they want and other people are not their business. Just like the prophets of the Old Testament, he foresaw the downfall of tyrannical rulers and unjust economic structures because those who are sinned against never remain silent indefinitely. If there is escalating military action then we have all in some way been involved and, as we pray for peace, we should also pray forgiveness and for new direction- not only in Syria but in our own nation too. That is what I hear God’s Word in the Bible saying to me right now.
Well, says St Paul to Timothy, “off you go. Hold onto the word and preach the word in season and out of season-” Or whether you are sitting in a church discussion group with a Bible on your knee or peering into the fish freezer in Sainsburys. “God’s Word will equip you for every situation.” Really?
I started with the challenge of moving out of college into the real world and I shall close with Andrew Roberts’ experience. He was studying in the beautiful cathedral city of York and belonged to a powerful, charismatic, Bible-based church there. Then he took a holiday job in a factory in Basildon, living in a rented room on a poverty-stricken estate. His whisky-drinking landlady, he learned, had done time for violent robbery and assault. Another lodger was arrested for drug dealing. A neighbour was shot on their doorstep during a domestic dispute. What could he do? How could anything he had learned in York help him here? He tried to pray for those around him and to share his faith but he obviously did not think he had done a very good job. At the end of his stay he bought his landlady a Bible as a gift. To his amazement, he received a letter written in cheap biro on a page from a spiral notepad saying “thank-you so much for the Bible.” It was the first book this lady had ever been given. And the gift had given her comfort and hope. Thanks be to God for His Holy Word. Amen.