What I said this Sunday – Bible Sunday

This Sunday we kept as Bible Sunday, and it was a particularly special Sunday for us as we were receiving the gift of a new lectern Bible from the Friends of Saint John’s. We already had a lectern Bible, but it has been largely unused for a long time since, like many churches, we now use the New Revised Standard Version in our worship. The new Bible we have is a beautiful leather-bound copy of the NRSV with Apocrypha.

For the occasion I chose as the gospel reading Luke 5.1-11 for reasons which will become clear. Here’s what I said.

Have you noticed how some things just don’t make sense?

  • How do dads get away with buying presents for their children that they intend to play with themselves.
  • Why do we press harder on a remote-control even when we know the battery is dead?
  • Why do people go to Burger King and order a Double Whopper with large fries and then insist on having a Diet Coke?
  • How come abbreviated is such a long word?
  • Why do banks charge a fee on “insufficient funds” when they know you haven’t got the money to pay it?
  • Why is there an ‘s’ in the word ‘lisp’?
  • Why do people say that they slept like a baby? Do they mean they cried all night and kept their parents awake?
  • Why do toasters always have a setting so high that could burn the toast to ashes and set fire to the kitchen?
  • Why is the Bible the world’s best-selling book, and yet so few people seem to actually read it?

Well, all those of you who have Bibles that you don’t read – I’m going to make you feel better this morning. Now, some people will think that what I’m about to say is heresy: The Bible was never meant to be read – it was meant to be listened to! There – I’ve said it. The Bible was never meant to be read by people at home on their own. It was meant to be listened to by people gathering together. So  – if you never read your Bible at home you’re only doing what the majority of Christians for the majority of the Church’s history have done.

Think about it. In the Early Church Christians didn’t have Bibles at home. For a start, the Bible as we know it didn’t exist until the end of the fourth century, when the Church formally declared the definitive list of books that made up the Bible. In the early years of the Church people accepted the Jewish writings we now call the Old Testament as part of Scripture though even those didn’t reach their current form till after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD, but there was of course no New Testament. In time the letters and then the gospels of various writers came to be accepted as Scripture. Some of those were in the end rejected and we ended up with the 27 books of the New Testament that we now know. But there was no way of putting everything together into one book and producing it cheaply so that everyone could have a copy at home. It would be centuries before the printing press was invented and even then books remained the preserve of the wealthy for some time. And most people couldn’t read anyway. For most of the history of the Church, the Bible has simply not been a book that people have at home to read when they want – it has been something that people heard read to them in Church. And that was the only way they experienced it.

And that is actually quite important. Because a key aspect of Scripture is that it is through Scripture that God speaks to us. This is a concept that was quite familiar to early Christians. When they heard the Scriptures being read they believed, just as the Jews believed when the scriptures were read to them in the synagogue, that God was speaking directly to them. And it was this belief that God spoke to them that led to the formation of the New Testament. The Church didn’t just sit down one day and think up a list of books that would make up a good follow-up to the Old Testament. What happened was that as Paul’s letters, and letters from others, began to find their way around the churches; as people started to write accounts of the life of Jesus; these writings were read during public worship. And people started to feel that certain of these writings were being used by God to speak to them and teach them – they were, they believed, inspired. Worship, remember, was the only time you encountered the Scriptures. And listening to them was exciting – what was God going to say today? And when the Church finally drew up the official list – what we call the Canon of Scripture – it was, in effect, ratifying what had already been decided by experience.

Imagine what it must have been like hearing these writings read out to you for the very first time. Imagine hearing, for example, the wonderful prologue to John’s gospel. And having heard it, you couldn’t just go home and read it again – you had to wait until it was read again in worship.

Today, we are used to being able to have our own copies of the Bible. We can read them at home. We can study them together in groups. Hearing the Bible read during our worship no longer, on the whole, gives people the thrill that it did before the advent of printing and mass education. Don’t get me wrong – having access to the Scriptures is a wonderful thing, and it is so important that our Bibles don’t just sit on our shelves. We can read for ourselves the word of God. But a by-product of that has surely been that we no longer find ourselves excited by the prospect of hearing the Bible read aloud in our worship. We hear the words read aloud but on the whole we no longer hear the voice of God coming through them.

The Bible was never meant to be kept on a shelf at home, to be taken down and read if and when we wanted. It was meant to be read aloud in our worship so that God could speak to us as the community gathered in his name. And for me, this is supremely important. Every once in a while someone says to me:
–          Why do we have to have three readings?
–          Can’t you stop using the Old Testament reading?
–          The readings are too long – they’re boring!

Well, we could cut a reading out, or make the readings shorter. But the day we start saying that the Bible is boring, that we don’t want to hear it read, that we want to make the readings shorter, is the day that we have started saying that either we are unable to or we don’t want to hear God speaking to us. I’m tempted to say to people when asked such questions, why would you not want to hear the word of God, or why would you want to deny others the opportunity to hear it?

The Church gives us four readings every Sunday – an Old Testament reading, a psalm, a New Testament reading and a Gospel. And even as I’m saying this I’m wondering whether we ought to bring the psalm back. The Church provides these four readings because God speaks to us, because we see Jesus, in both Word and Sacrament equally. The Bible was never meant to be kept at home – it was meant to be proclaimed in worship to allow us to hear the voice of God in our midst. Being able to keep a copy at home to read in the week is a bonus. Don’t ever let yourself become bored by hearing the Bible read to you.

I chose this morning’s gospel reading because it was the first Bible passage I ever had to write a sermon on. I never preached it, it was an academic exercise, but this reading has always spoken to me. Jesus is beside the lake of Gennesaret. The crowd are pressing in on Jesus to hear the word of God, so he gets into a boat so he can preach to them. And having preached he calls Simon to become a fisher of people. And the reading finishes with Simon and his companions leaving everything and following Jesus. It’s a wonderful image, and you can imagine if you immerse yourself in this passage how it must have felt like to be there. To so want to hear Jesus expound the word of God, and to hear him preaching from the boat. In fact it is such a powerful image that the church of Saint Leonard in Saint-Leonard’s-on-sea has a very special pulpit. The original church was destroyed by a German V-1 in July 1944. The night after, the rector dreamed that he saw Jesus preaching in a boat. He decided that when the church was rebuilt it should have a pulpit made like a boat. People thought he was mad, but when the new church was built twelve years later it was given a pulpit shaped like the front of a fishing boat, fashioned by a Galilean craftsman with oak from the Holy Land. It’s well worth going to see if you get the chance.

Today Jesus isn’t physically here with us to preach to us. Today he shows himself to us, and speaks to us, through Word and Sacrament. The gift to us today of this new Lectern Bible by the Friends of Saint John’s is a reminder of how precious the word of God is, and that God has chosen to speak to us through its pages. Simply having it here on the lectern is a symbol of God’s presence with us and of his desire to speak to us. The crowds at the Lake of Gennesaret pressed in on Jesus to hear the word of God. May we in our own day have that same overwhelming desire to hear the Word of God spoken to us. And to respond like the disciples who heard Jesus then by being prepared to leave all and follow him.