Friday, May 03, 2013

Easter 6C (visit by Gideons International)

I was at a workshop for Anglican clergy a few months ago when the speaker – a Bible-soaked Mennonite pastor – wanted to make a point about Jesus' first, less-than-successful attempt to proclaim the good news to the folk in his home town, Nazareth. 'Could someone turn to Luke 4.16?', he asked.  Turns out nobody in the room of 60 or so Anglican priests had brought a Bible.  'Only in the Anglican Church', the Mennonite told us – but then one by one we all started taking out our mobile phones.  I remembered I have an app for that – in fact in my pocket I have no less than seven English versions of the Bible, as well as the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in Greek, and a full set of commentaries …

God's word these days comes in many different formats!  There's also an English version to suit any reader – youth translations, the formal poetic language of the King James version, informal and accessible versions like the Contemporary English Version, fresh and imaginative paraphrase versions like The Message – I read a while ago of a text-speak version of the New Testament, and this year it is expected the first translation of the Gospel of Luke into Nyungar, the language of the Aboriginal people of Perth and the South-West, will be published.  Last year a delegation of Perth Anglicans travelled to China and visited Amity Press, who were celebrating the printing of their 45 millionth copy of the Bible.  Can you imagine?  The Gideons place God's word for free in schools and hospitals and motels in our local community – if you've noticed that the supply of pew Bibles here at St Michaels has been gradually dwindling over the last six years that's because I give them away – you can get an electronic copy for your phone or your computer for free – see me if you want to know how – but the important thing is that you read it.

Anglicanism has a special treasure, but I wonder how many Anglicans even know about it?  It's called the Daily Office, the morning and evening prayers first compiled by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in the first Prayer Book of the reign of Edward VI in 1549.  Cranmer took the seven medieval daily offices of the Benedictines and compressed them into two, and said, 'that's enough for priests living a busy life in the community'.  They are still there in the Prayer Book, morning and evening prayer for each day of the week, a selection of canticles and psalms – and big chunks of the Bible.  If you pray the discipline of morning and evening prayer you read the New Testament once a year, the Old Testament once every two years, the Gospels twice a year, you read through the Psalms once every two months.  Anglicanism was founded on a diet of scripture and prayer.  I was at another meeting – a number of years ago now – when the speaker, a Baptist pastor – said to us 'I always tell my workers that they need to spend just 30 minutes every day reading the Bible, but they think it's too much.  Only you Anglicans get that, you just do your morning and evening prayer.'  Unfortunately, of course, we Anglicans forget our heritage.  The most recent National Church Life Survey – amongst a plethora of other interesting and challenging facts – contained the little snippet that only about one third of us read the Bible and pray daily.  Fully one third of us admitted in that survey that we never read the Bible at all – apart from when we are in church.

People – read the Bible – it's never been easier.  Pray the daily office, ask me if you don't know how to get a lectionary, or get hold of one the planned daily reading guides from Koorong or St John's Bookshop.  I'm sure Rosalie can sell you one from the bookstall.

Many modern Christians are ambivalent about the Bible.  Most of us realise it's not meant to be taken literally.  The Book of Genesis is not a scientific account of the creation of the world.  We don't have to get anxious about contradictions like who killed the Philistine giant, Goliath – according to the first Book of Samuel it was David, with a slingshot – according to second Samuel – chapter 21 verse 19 if you care to look it up – it was Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim the Bethlehemite.  Women don't have to get too fussed about the second letter to Timothy which prohibits you from braiding your hair or wearing gold, pearls or expensive clothes.  People, despite what it says in Mark chapter 16, verse 18, you are not immune from snake bite - so don't go playing with them at home.  The list of course goes on and on.  Christians understand the difference between history and poetry and mythology, we know about figures of speech and we know that ancient texts get edited and re-edited over the course of centuries, and we know that the scriptures speak to us not only with God's voice, but with the voices, and bearing the cultural perspectives and sometimes the prejudices, of God's people.  We know that we need to take the Bible seriously, just not literally.

But we seriously call it the Word of God, and we know that, in a very literal sense, we are formed by it.  St Augustine writes that we do not so much read the scriptures as that we are read by the scriptures.  In other words that our own lives are opened and interpreted as we hold them up to the standard of God's holiness and God's mercy and compassion revealed to us in the scriptures.  St Bonaventure, my favourite Franciscan, loves to write about the Word of God which primarily, he says, is the name for Jesus, the Word made flesh.  The Word, Bonaventure says, is that which joins us mind to mind and heart to heart – the Word is the projection outwards into creation of what is at the heart of God – just as the word you speak makes outward and external what is on your mind – and so for Bonaventure the Word is Christ, and the Word is also creation itself, the beauty and symmetry and wonder of a created universe that projects the beauty and splendour and love of God.  The fact that we are bent over by sin, Bonaventure writes, is why we human beings have lost the ability to read the Book of Creation – and so we need the Word made flesh and we need the Word of scripture.

As Christians we also know that we ourselves – our own lives – are a Word of God.  Our own lives bear the potential and the responsibility of resonating with the creative word of God – and for that reason our lives resonate with the Word of scripture.  As we open ourselves to the discipline and the joy of reading – of studying and of praying – the Word of scripture, so our lives are opened to become what God created us to be.  We grow, in other words, into what we most truly are – men and women created in the image of God.