Through The Bible in Just Over a Year – Intro

 

In my formative 20s I attended a church with a very strong teaching ministry, and one of the series we did took us through every book of the Bible, a week at a time. We were blessed with not one but two sermons, one on the background to each book, and one on its practical application for today (or rather the 70s!). I lapped it up, and owe so much to the teaching I received not just through that series but through all my eight years at that church.

Now that my day job is to work at Diocesan level to promote Christian discipleship I am amazed and frequently appalled at the lack of solid teaching in today’s C of E. I’m not sure how many churches value the teaching ministry, or how many clergy see their primary task as feeding the people of God with both milk and meat as appropriate. I’m struck by how often St Paul, when seeking to correct some error in the life of one of his churches, wrote ‘Don’t you know …?’ Bad or lack of teaching leads to misunderstanding and bad living. So in my small way I have a heart for seeing the teaching ministry restored to the church, so that healthy and mature Christians are produced, Christians able confidently to join in with the mission of God to our communities and nation. Working in the area of discipleship one of my key texts has become Gal 4:19, where Paul tells his ‘dear children’ that he is in ‘the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you’. I lament the lack of this kind of passion in many church leaders today, and in this new blog series I want to recreate a kind of overview of the Bible, the primary means through which God reveals himself to us and forms us as disciples. I’m going to take you through the Bible in just over a year.

 

What you won’t get from this blog, obviously,  is in-depth scholarly stuff, loads of Hebrew and Greek, and the latest in academic thought. There are plenty of other places to find that stuff, and frankly I’m not that good at it. But what I do hope to do is to help us to read each book with some understanding of why it is in the Bible, and what it might say to us today. If I gave you a train timetable and a book of metaphysical poetry you would obviously use them very differently, and the books of the Bible are like that: you have to know what each book is trying to do so that you can read it with understanding.

 

I’m also aware that whenever we read Scripture we need the help of the Holy Spirit. People who know me well and have read my books often tell me that they ‘could just hear me speaking as they read. It’s so “you”’. In the same way we read the Bible differently when we know the author well. So there’s a circularity: we get to know God through reading Scripture, and we read Scripture better when we know God better. I hope this blog series might help on both counts.

 

So – next week – Genesis, the book of beginnings.

 

 

OT Lectionary Christmas 1 Isaiah 63:7-9

One of the things about the Anglican lectionary with which some people feel really unhappy is the practice of ‘filleting’ or cutting out verses or paragraphs, usually because they are not ‘nice’. The church has an amazing ability to want to make everything lovely, so verses about dashing children’s heads against the rocks aren’t quite the sort of thing we want to read during Evensong. Christmas is a great time for this, being the time of ‘peace on earth, goodwill towards men’ (or, as the text actually says, ‘goodwill to those on whom God’s favour rests’, which is a very different thing.

File:Children in Family Room with New Holiday Christmas Tree - Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt.jpg

Today’s OT reading is a song of praise to God for all his goodness to Israel, for his kindness in choosing them and saving them. He has recognised in them a people who will be faithful to him, and he has been good to them through good times and bad. When things went badly for them, he felt their distress and acted in their favour. He truly is a great God to them. It doesn’t take much to see why this passage in chosen in the aftermath of Christmas, when we celebrate again the kindness of the God who has felt our distress, chosen to step into our world and save us, acted for our salvation, and invited us into relationship with him. But then the compliers of the lectionary, in their wisdom, stop there, rather than going on to verse 10:

Yet they rebelled
    and grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
    and he himself fought against them.

It seems to me that this is one of the central dilemmas of preaching and living the Christian faith: we do try to make it a lot nicer than it actually is. Today in my cathedral (well not mine, just the one I go to) they will be celebrating the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, martyred in 1170). Yesterday was the celebration of the Holy Innocents, the ‘collateral damage’ children slaughtered by Herod around the time of Jesus’ birth. I have rarely found churches who did anything about this festival: after all it kind of spoils the mood of Christmas a bit, doesn’t it?

But the truth of today’s passage is a truth which runs deeply through the biblical record at all levels: God’s kindness demands a response. The reason there is still not peace on earth or goodwill to all is that human beings have chosen war and cruelty instead. God can be kind to us until he is blue in the face but unless we respond positively to him it will be worth nothing. And perhaps we need to hear that particularly during the time of greatest sentimentality, and resist the temptation to make the good news nicer than it actually is, or God kinder than he actually it.

Is Liturgy Biblical?

We’re thinking about liturgy and whether it has any enduring value in a church which has, at least in part, rejected it in favour of singing songs. One of the big questions which I’m asked from time to time is whether liturgy is ‘biblical’. Lurking behind this question is the suggestion that if it isn’t, if it is merely a human invention, then we shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

Firstly I point out that data projectors aren’t biblical, but we don’t seem to feel that they are a problem. But underneath this is a much deeper and far more complex truth. In order to understand it we’ll have to take a trip back to childhood, and then beyond that to the 15th century.

So here are some pieces of liturgy – see if you can complete the responses:

‘What big teeth you’ve got, Grandma …’

‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and …’

‘Who’s been sleeping in my …’

‘Cheer up, Cinderella, you shall …’

You get the idea. The fact is that even in our post-book culture we imbibe little bits of ‘liturgy’ with our mothers’ milk, and they stay with us, woven into the fabric of our memories. Different editions of children’s books may tell the stories slightly differently, but those little ‘punch lines’ are eternal and unchangeable, and it is those which we remember. If that is how we work, how much more would that have been the case for pre-book cultures.

The fact that when we think ‘liturgy’ we think ‘book’ is due to an event in history which shaped our world more than just about anything else. Somewhere around 1450 (the exact date is disputed) Gutenberg invented the printing press, and this simple piece of technology changed the world, about as radically as information technology has changed it in my lifetime. Before that the technology available for producing books was called ‘monks’, which meant that books were expensive and rare. Producing books took years, not least because the monks would insist on doing little coloured doodles in the margins instead of just getting on with the job. You used books to store stuff you already knew in safe keeping. But now things were different – you could produce hundreds of copies very cheaply and quickly. The role of books changed: they were now where you found out stuff you didn’t already know.

The church was quick to use this technology: Archbishop Thomas Cranmer set every parish a copy of the new Prayer Book with the instruction that from Pentecost 1549 only these liturgies were to be used in English parishes, thus establishing the Reformation and Protestantism in the land. But how different this approach from that of the Early Church. With its Jewish liturgical heritage early Christianity would have functioned much more like the nursery rhymes above, with short, pithy and highly memorable words which everyone would have known by heart.

So to the question ‘Why is there no liturgy in the Bible?’ the answer is that it is full of the stuff! We have fixed acclamations, often in a foreign language: Amen, Alleluia, Maranatha, Abba. There are doxologies and blessings: 1 Tim 1:17, Rom 11:33-36, hymns: Eph 5:14, 1 Tim 3:16, and creeds: Rom 10:9, 1 Cor 8:6, 15:3-5. There are also physical gestures and postures: 1 Tim 2:8, 1 Cor 16:20, Ax 21:5, and there are festivals: 1 Cor 16:8. These are just a selection of the ways in which liturgical worship would have been part of the Early Church. Basically if you look in the New Testament for bit set out as poetry rather than prose, the chances are you’ve got a liturgical text which would have been well known in the church. Early Church worship was liturgical worship.