Before I begin, please allow me to say thank you and what a pleasure it is for us from St Luke in the Fields in New York City to be with you here at St Mary’s. I bring greetings from our Rector, Mother Caroline Stacey, the other parish clergy, Fatherr Bo Reynolds and Mother Gina Gore, and the whole congregation. I want you to know that we pray for all of you here at St Mary's at all three masses each Sunday and at our daily masses throughout the week. We have a deep affection for you as a companion in ministry and we look forward to finding ways to continue to deepen our relationship with you. Yesterday, a group of us from NYC and beyond began a Pilgrimage to explore our common Anglican heritage here in what some of us Anglophiles call 'the holy land.' Thank you all for welcoming us here as a companion in ministry, and especially to Mother Marjorie for inviting me to preach today.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When Mother Marjorie so kindly invited me to preach, I wondered if the lessons for today would be the same as we observe on this particular Sunday in The Episcopal Church. The answer, of course, was no -- and so in due course I've learned about your option in The Church of England as observing this day as Bible Sunday. It was you here at St Mary's who inspired us at St Luke in the Fields to take on the Bible Challenge in 2017. It is a great discipline and I hope you found it as rewarding as our folks who completed it. I must also tell you that even my grandmother at age 92 completed the Bible Challenge and is soon to start her third go-round now with this particular way of reading the Bible.
Today as the Church of England celebrates Bible Sunday, it's good to note that it's not as if today is the only time of year the Scriptures are celebrated. In fact, Scripture is essential to our identity as Anglicans. The Sunday Eucharistic Lectionary gets us through most of the Bible every three years in Church -- and the Daily Office move us through all of the Bible every two years. It's our common worship life that is centered in Scripture and in Common Prayer. There is a wonderful joke out there that says that the reason Anglicans like the Bible so much is because it quotes the Prayer Book so often. While it's true that many a truth is told in a joke, it's also true that Anglicans gave the Bible to the English-speaking world. It's the Church of England that is to be thanked for first English translation. The Word of God, along with Christ's Sacraments, are the ways in which we encounter God in the clearest light and that reveal to us the very realness of Jesus in our presence. Jesus is present to us in the Word broken open and in the breaking of the bread. It is with great care that we recognize Jesus' real presence in the Eucharist and also great care that we recognize his real presence in Scripture. Therefore, we must read the Bible with guidance and sophistication. We must read it contextually and in ways that honor God and that are consistent with God's intention for us.
It's remarkably easy to manipulate Scripture and to use it support any idea we have. No matter what your position, you can generally find some one-line Bible passage to support your argument. There is a true story of a congregation who was building a new addition to their Christian Education building. They decided to put a passage from Scripture appropriate to each Sunday School class room above the door. Above the youth room they wrote these words from Psalm 71: “O God, from my youth thou hast taught me.” Above the senior citizens’ classroom door they put a quote from Job 32: “Let the days speak and many years teach wisdom.” But when it came to the baby nursery, they had a bit of trouble coming up with the right passage. Eventually they found it, there in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians. Above the door they wrote, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” It's essential to our spiritual health and growth that we read the Bible with context and sophistication so that we best understand it, being guided by the Holy Spirit. This is why worship and the Prayer Book are so important to us as Anglicans; the Prayer Book is the lens through which we read the Bible.
Conversely, in attempts largely to control and exclude people from God's love and care, an unfortunate number of denominations and churches have taken a self-satisfying yet unsophisticated reading of Scripture to justify untold oppression and exploitation, from slavery and colonization, to racism, nationalism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and so forth. But those things are hardly what the Good News of Jesus Christ is about. The Bible is primarily a love story, a story of God's love for us that is so deep and abiding that even we can't mess it up. From beginning to end it's primarily about God's unconditional love for us in sending God's son, Jesus, to dwell among us, to become one of us, to die for us, to reconcile us to God, and to raise our humanity in his Resurrection and Ascension. It's about Jesus -- and as we learn about and begin to trust God's unconditional love for us, we also then come to realize that God's love while unconditional, it isn't without expectations. Jesus, in today's Gospel expects us to be disciples!
In today's Gospel reading, we hear Jesus' frustration with those who just don't understand who he is. We hear his exasperation with those who mistake the law of the Bible as the means of their salvation and miss that all the Scriptures are speaking about him, who is the Logos, the Word. Jesus himself is the Word of God, not the pages he is written on.
At the beginning of the 5th Chapter of John's Gospel, in Bethesda, Jesus heals a man unable to walk. But because this was on the Sabbath, the religious leaders around Jesus begin to implode because working is forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus, understanding Jewish rhetorical standards, knows that speaking truth and drawing logical conclusions are not enough. Witnesses were also needed. But Jesus is telling them to look at the very works he is doing to be the witness to his claim as God's Son. But all that they can focus on is that the works were done on the Sabbath. They miss altogether that it's from God. The works of healing and mercy, of love and power are themselves the witnesses that Jesus is God's son. Jesus tells them plainly that God’s word is not dwelling in them because Jesus’ Word is not in them. You see, it's not a matter of believing in Jesus so much as just believing what he is saying, in the sense of believing his claim that God is his “Father.” Unbelief is a theme that runs throughout this discourse. But it's those who believe that God is his Father who are Jesus' disciples. Jesus tries to help them understand that the Scriptures do indeed give life, but not directly, rather indirectly, by pointing directly to Jesus who says: “And yet those are the writings that testify about me.” John's Gospel agrees with all of the New Testament that all Scriptures testify to Jesus and support his claims. Yet 'those who look to Scripture for their life will not come to me,' Jesus says. Jesus is saying in order to have life we must follow him and believe that he is God's son.
The Word of God, and literally I mean Jesus, and his sacraments shape our hearts into icons of Jesus himself. Baptism makes us part of his body, the Eucharist nourishes and sustains us as his body, and the Word shapes us as his body. We are constantly being shaped and formed by the sharp edges of the Word and are shaped into reflections, specifically living icons, of Christ. Daily encounters with Christ in his Holy Word remove from us hatred and malice, impatience and complacency, bitterness and contempt. As Christ's Word molds our hearts into these living icons of Christ, the parts of us that we find shameful and embarrassing fall away, never to be remembered. It's an on-going and life-long process. But as Christ's light shines in our hearts, others see that the light and the icon on our hearts is not our own, but it's the very work of God through Jesus. This work continues day by day. The Word of God did not stop speaking the Canon of the Bible was closed. As the hymn says, "The Lord still has more light and truth to break forth from his Word."
May God give us the grace to continue to engage daily in the Word through prayer and praise, through study and meditation on the Bible -- that its sharp edges may dull our rough spots and hew us into the living icon of Christ, our Saviour.
Let us pray:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979)
The Revd Fr William Ogburn, SCP
St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill