Sunday 29 October
Year A: Last Sunday after Trinity (Proper 25)
Liturgical Colour: Green
- Nehemiah 8:1-4a [5-6] 8-12
- Psalm 119:9-16
- Colossians 3:12-17
- Matthew 24:30-35
There is a choice of three different sets of readings today. I have chosen to look at the ones used when this Sunday is observed as Bible Sunday. Bible, Scripture, the Word of the Lord; whatever we call it, it is central to our lives and our faith. But that doesn’t stop our views about it varying somewhat!
During the Reformation many countries in the west were divided over whether to continue to accept Papal authority or break away and form a new protestant church. To cut a long and not entirely holy story short, Henry VIII broke from Rome in the 1530s and passed legislation that made the English monarch ‘the only supreme head of the Church of England’. There was much to-ing and fro-ing as to what that actually meant in the years that followed and we continue to be in debate about our theology, including what we think about scripture.
The official view of the Church of England on scripture can be found in Canon Law and what are sometimes referred to as the three historic formularies; the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 ordinal.
Canon A.5 states that ‘the doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures’ and Canon C.15 declares that ‘the Church of England professes the faith as uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures’.
The Thirty-Nine Articles in particular, tries to find a balance between a number of conflicts, including views about scripture. For example, they commend the Apocrypha as wise guidance for living whilst falling short of including it in the bible as Roman Catholics do; they acknowledge the importance of the Holy Spirit in guiding emerging theology based on different interpretations of scripture; and they attempt to mediate between those who hold the Old Testament to be either redundant on the one hand or still binding on the other.
The English theologian Richard Hooker was one of the architects of the Church of England. In his work Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (please bear with me if you are beginning to lose interest or read the introduction sections of the BCP if you want to learn more!) he argued for the threefold authority of scripture, tradition and reason. We might crudely attribute these to evangelical, catholic and liberal leanings within the Church of England today – but no one would be happy with us if we did! In addition, the Methodists gave us another perspective with what is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which adds our personal experience as Christians into the mix.
Scripture is essential to our self-understanding as children of God and members of the Church of England, but it shares that platform with tradition, reason and experience. So, depending on where you sit in all of that you might think about it slightly differently.
There are also various approaches to biblical hermeneutics (the theory and principles of interpretation) and exegesis (the tools for and practice of digging into and interpreting the intended meaning of scripture) and I will look at some of these in the coming weeks. But for now, I want to focus on the place of scripture in our individual and collective lives as people of faith.
Together the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther cover the last century of Old Testament history, around 538-433BC. Ezra and Nehemiah describe the three stage return of the people of Israel from exile in Babylon, the rebuilding of the temple and the reclaiming of Jerusalem. The reading from Nehemiah follows a long list of names of the first and main group to return. This passage describes how they then also return to the word of God.
Ezra brings the book of the law of Moses (probably Deuteronomy) into the crowd, stands on a platform and reads from it. The leaders then move among the people to help the people understand what was being said. The people seem full of remorse for how far they had strayed from the law, but Nehemiah urges them to continue in their preparations and celebrations for the new moon festival.
Forget all of the above! (I don’t mean completely, as leaders we need to know about this stuff and any way it is really interesting) but for now put yourself in a different ‘head-space’. I have not got a clue how or why but I know from personal and reported experience that God continues to talk to us, in spite of all our disagreements about it, through scripture.
So, what are the verses of scripture that have come to you over and over again as part of your calling? Perhaps you might like to pay new attention them. Thank God for them. Reconnect with them. Reflect on how your understanding of them has developed and matured over the years.
Also, in spite of how much we might drift away or argue about it, give thanks that God can speak to us and those we serve through our bible today; and for our privileged call to interpret and proclaim afresh the gospel and its lively relevance and saving power from one generation to the next.