Last Sunday was the last Sunday after Trinity. However, as an option we are allowed to keep it as Bible Sunday. I was a little naughty and changed the gospel reading from that set to Luke 5.1-11 for reasons which are apparent in the sermon.
Kitchen cupboards. Useful things, aren’t they.
When our new vicarage was built the diocese put some very nice cupboards into the new kitchen. And in the corners we’ve got those cupboards that go around the corner and have those really nifty doors that fold so that they open and close easily. When I was growing up we didn’t have any food cupboards in the kitchen at all. We didn’t have a fridge, either, until I was a teenager. We had a pantry instead. But with the invention of kitchen cupboards and fridges, pantries and larders no longer have a place in the typical home of today.
Kitchen cupboards are just perfect for storing away all kinds of tins and packets until you need them. Now, the great thing about the pantry that we had when I was young was that everything was on open shelves, and you could see it all. There’s an inherent problem with kitchen cupboards. You might, of course, be highly organised and know exactly what you’ve got in yours. But if you’re like most people then unless you only line up tins and packets along the very front of the cupboard shelves then stuff starts to get lost or forgotten at the back. Fridges are just the same. And sometimes stuff can sit at the back of the kitchen cupboard for years. And corner cupboards are the worst of all, because trying to reach to the back corner – especially on the top shelf – is downright physically impossible.
A few days ago I had a look for the open packet of spaghetti that I knew was in our corner cupboard somewhere. Sure enough, there it was, lurking at the back. But as I was looking out came some other long lost treasures, including a tin of Heinz Cream of Tomato soup we didn’t know we had. And then further exploration revealed, on the next shelf up, right at the back exactly where it shouldn’t be, another long-lost open packet of spaghetti.
It reminded me of the words of Jesus:
Every teacher of the Law who becomes a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who takes new and old things out of his storeroom. (Matthew 13.52 GNB)
The Bible is a storehouse full of treasures. The problem is that for many of us it has become like our kitchen cupboards. We might open it from time to time but we have forgotten about so much that lies deep within. Like the tins at the front of the cupboard, there’s stuff we know, but we’ve lost sight of so much more that’s in there somewhere if only we could be bothered to look more deeply.
And when I see the way people behave, or the way people speak to each other, or about each other behind people’s backs, it’s clear that the Bible’s teaching is being ignored or has been forgotten. In some ways the Bible is perhaps too familiar. We are all so lucky to be able to have instant access to the Bible and yet its very accessibility means that we so often we don’t bother about it much. Most, if not all of us, have Bibles at home. Many will have more than one. We can open it whenever we like. And yet so many don’t – or only open it and, like opening the kitchen cupboard, see only some of what is in there.
That wasn’t always the case, of course. 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 even when the Bible as we know it now came together there was no way of putting it all 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. When the early Christians went to worship, which they did every week, they couldn’t wait to hear the Scriptures read to them. Because they knew that it was through the Scriptures that God spoke to them. And they looked forward to hearing another part of one of the biographies of Jesus that were circulating. Or hearing again what Paul had said in his latest letter.
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. Or the Sermon on the Mount when you’ve never heard it before. 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. The early Christians would listen to the words of the prophets, or the latest letters from the apostles. They would listen to more about the life and the teaching of Jesus. And sometimes they would hear something new. And sometimes they would rediscover things they had heard before. But they really wanted to hear and engage with the Scriptures. Because they learned about God, they learned about Jesus, they learned how to live as his disciples.
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. We don’t call the Bible The Word of God for nothing. We say at the end of the readings This is the word of the Lord because we believe it really is. And if that is the case then we should, surely, take the Bible far, far more seriously than most do.
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. And 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. The reality is that a by-product of mass availability of the Bible 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 Church gives every Sunday an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading and a Gospel. The Church provides these readings because God speaks to us, because we see Jesus, in both Word and Sacrament equally. Let him speak to you. But don’t stop there. Read the Bible at home as well. And don’t just read the familiar bits. Delve deeper into the storehouse of riches that is God’s Word. And if you haven’t got a Bible in modern English that’s easy to read, then I’ve recommended two for you on the back of this week’s service sheet.
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. They are desperate to hear what Jesus has to say. When was the last time you felt like that? When was the last time that you were that eager to hear what Jesus has to say to you?
Well, they were so anxious to hear Jesus that they were thronging around him. And 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 what it must have felt like to be there. To so want to hear what Jesus had to say, 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.
The crowds at the Lake of Gennesaret pressed in on Jesus to hear the word of God. Today Jesus speaks to us through the Scriptures. He reveals himself to us in Word as well as Sacrament. May we in our own day have that same overwhelming desire as those crowds at Gennesaret to listen to 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.
So go home, and take your Bible down off its shelf. And take a leaf out of the book of Jonathan Goforth. Jonathan Goforth was the first missionary to go to China with the Canadian Presbyterian Mission. I’ve always thought what a wonderful name that was for a missionary – Goforth. And in 1887 he went with his wife to China. He thought the Bible was quite important. He once wrote: My deepest regret, on reaching threescore years and ten, is that I have not devoted more time to the study of the Bible. Still, in less than nineteen years I have gone through the New Testament in Chinese fifty-five times.
Take the Bible down off its shelf. Open the front cover. And start to discover the riches that lie inside. Allow it to bring out before you both the old and the new – those old passages you once knew so well and that seem so familiar that you’ve stopped noticing what they say. Those new passages you’ve never read before and that may speak to you anew of Jesus and what he wants of you. Read with expectation that the voice of Jesus will speak to you. Because he will speak to you – speak to you about the need for love and forgiveness, the need for justice and peace, the need to live as he wants you to live. But you have to open your Bible and open your ears and open your heart.