This Lent we have been talking about the season as a time of preparation. Preparation for baptism for new Christians and a chance to reflect and prepare to renew our baptismal covenant for those of us already baptized. With this in mind, our preaching in Lent is focused on core practices and ideas in Christianity.
We hear readings from the Bible every Sunday. Many Christians read the Bible every day, following some sort of practice or schedule. Our liturgy is full of quotations from holy scripture. Many of our prayers quote the Bible heavily. This Bible is clearly very important to Christians. So what is it and what do we do with it?
The Bible is a collection of holy texts which we believe to be the inspired word of God, recorded by humanity. Most often today we think of reading the bible, alone and silently. This has not been the norm for very long, however. For most of Christian history the Bible was heard rather than read. As we do here on Sunday mornings, scripture was read out loud in a community gathering. Depending on the time and place, people might ask questions or discuss the readings right there or after the liturgy concluded. But there was conversation about what they heard in the reading of scripture. What they heard of God in their midst. This is because Christians are a listening people who expect God to speak to them.
God has spoken and continues to speak to humanity in many ways. If you flip through a copy of the Bible and stop randomly, you might land on any number of genres of writing. You might land on a story about miracles where Jesus heals the sick and casts out unclean spirits. You might land on a psalm, where humanity addresses God with our collective hopes, fears, thanksgivings, and worries. You might land on Paul, writing to an early Christian community, with a long and complex argument about the nature of Christian faith. Or you might land on a long, ancient love poem, a story of great battles between nations, or, as in today’s readings, you might find a story about God speaking directly to people, changing their lives and even their names to reflect their new relationship. In all of these stories and genres, we believe that God has spoken and continues to speak to us.
Why so many kinds of writing and why so very many stories? Surely God could have given one, clear set of instructions—the sort one receives with a new dishwasher, for example—and perhaps a few updates along the way. Why the need for so many? One possible answer is that God knows we all respond to different kinds of storytelling differently. A set of instructions that seems clear to me may not be so clear to you and totally incomprehensible to the next person. It certainly seems important because within the stories we tell one another from the Bible, many of them include teachers like Jesus, who use stories themselves. When we speak of the Parable of the Sower, for example, we are talking about a story contained within a story. Or today, first we heard the story of God’s conversation with Abraham and Sarah only to hear in the second reading Paul teaching the Christians in Rome about the nature of faith using the same story.
Perhaps another reason that our scripture is filled with so many stories is because technical instructions are hard to own for ourselves. A series of “Do this, not that” instructions makes it easy for us to arrange our actions and to judge one another’s adherence to those instructions, but it’s difficult for us to own those instructions as part of our whole lives. Instructions are impersonal.
Listening to a story, however, is an entirely different experience. When we hear a story, even a short one, we get to know the characters and we begin to identify with them. Sometimes this makes us feel good when we see the best parts of ourselves in the characters in the story. Other times, we feel embarrassed and awkward and perhaps quietly ashamed when we see ourselves reflected in characters who are not doing so well. We see how the characters interpret and react to God’s presence in their lives and to one another. Even though the people in these stories are from many generations past, from places where few of us have been, and from cultures which few of us understand, those very human reactions still make sense and ring true to us from our own experiences. Often, this seems to be the purpose of the stories people tell in scripture and, then, the purpose of some of the stories we tell from scripture. We are left with the question “Where do you fit in this story?”
To be a Christian is to live in relationship. In relationship with God, and in relationship with other Christians, and in relationship with the rest of Creation. Christians are a listening people who expect God to speak to them. When God speaks to us, it is about our relationships. Our relationships are centred on God’s plan for our salvation and that plan centres on Jesus Christ. If God speaks to us through scripture, and God does, then we must understand scripture as we read it and hear it as all coming together around Jesus Christ as well. This is why we can’t take a verse here and a verse there, lay them down and say “There. That’s what the Bible says.” The individual pieces may have some use on their own, but the whole collection is there to show us the big picture. We’re meant to hear the whole story, not just a bit here and a piece there. As Rowan Williams puts it,
We need to approach the Bible as if it were a parable of Jesus. The whole thing is a gift, a challenge and an invitation into a new world, seeing yourself afresh and more truthfully. - Rowan Williams, Being Christian
Scripture and its many stories, which invite us to see the world and ourselves in new ways, demand that we think about them, engage with them, and respond to them. How are we to do this? For Christians, scripture centres around Jesus Christ and all of it comes together around his life, death, and resurrection. This is not to denigrate the integrity of Jewish scripture in itself, which, as Williams also says, is “a complex question that needs the most careful and sensitive understanding of the experience and reflection of our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
As Christians, we engage with these stories in light of our own belief and experience of Jesus Christ and it is in light of him that we work to make sense of scripture and its stories. We read and hear scripture, we discuss it, we write books about it, we carry the stories, and in all of this we hope and pray to better understand and hear what God is saying to us through scripture.
To read and hear the Bible well is to listen for God’s speaking in our lives through our relationship with Jesus and to allow the Holy Spirit to draw us into those stories where God speaks, making them our own. We do this work together because God also speaks through us to one another and our work in interpreting and understanding scripture is often most successful when we take it on as a community.
We reflect on this long tradition of stories and stories within stories, how they have been told, shared, reflected upon, and understood. In this season of preparation, this Lenten time, we also reflect on how we share these stories with newcomers to our community. Those around the world who are preparing to be baptized at Easter and those of us who are preparing to renew our baptismal vows at the same time all need to be taught and reminded how it is that we approach scripture and why we tell these stories again and again. We teach others and remind ourselves of the ways in which we listen for God’s speaking in our lives.
We hope and pray that, with God’s help through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, we might become the story we tell.
Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.