Feel free to pick and choose

preached at S.LUKE’S QUEEN’S PARK BRIGHTON  (Bible Sunday)

The bible is not a book.  I don’t mean it looks like a book but is really a lawn-mower or a hair-dryer. I mean it’s not a book.

It’s a collection of books: military history, politics, poetry, travel, fiction, science fiction, even theology - things you would normally have to visit several floors of a  bookshop to find. Written by all sorts of different people over a period of nearly 1000 years.

 A bit like you and I putting together a jumbo volume now which stretched from the Domesday book, then Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, then Macbeth to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Crime and Punishment, O what a lovely war and Schindler’s Ark.

So how do we interpret S.Paul’s letter to Timothy when he tells him All scripture is inspired by God?

 Well , watch out for all the blinkered and intolerant fundamentalism around and don’t be led up the garden path. BE VERY CAREFUL HOW YOU USE THE BIBLE.

 First of all. you can’t use the bible as an omnibus instruction manual, where any verse you care to pick out with a pin becomes a particular regulation on how to live your life.

I did a little experiment last night. I opened a page at random, waved my pin around, stuck it in and came up with the following:

All winged insects that walk on all fours are detestable to you. BUT, among the winged insects that walk on all fours you MAY eat those that have jointed legs above their feet with which to leap on the ground.

Hah! Just my luck to have landed in the book of Leviticus! Sounds like a bit of legalese, doesn’t it? You know-

provided always that the references to winged insects in clause 3 subsection 17(f) above should be read subject to the definition of a jointed leg in schedule 5 paragraph 9 below

But of course the trouble is, as any lawyer will tell you, that the more detailed your regulations become, the narrower the wording gets and the easier it is to find loopholes.

And the Scribes and the Pharisees loved to quibble, debate and find exceptions and excuses wherever it suited them.

They drove Jesus to distraction and forced S.Paul to conclude that “the law”, as the first five books of the Old Testament are called, could NEVER point the way to true righteousness and salvation.

So the bible doesn’t work as an exhaustive rulebook.

And the next thing is that it can’t all be literally true either.

Some bits - Esther, Ruth, the gospel parables - were never intended to be read as anything other than inspirational fiction. Then there are lots of poems, songs, prayers and requests. It simply doesn’t make sense to call these true or false. Only a statement of fact can be true or false.

 And, while we’re at it, what could it mean to say that the advice given by S.Paul to his early churches was “true”? Try this for size:

The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

How could you in your right mind believe that passage is “true” in a sort of timeless, sacred vacuum just because Paul felt it socially advisable for his little church not to rock the boat in 1st century Corinth? Of course you can’t and neither can I.

Otherwise we’d be stuck in a timewarp today. No women bishops, priests or deacons. No women readers or intercessors!

 It would be hilarious if it were not so sad that conservative evangelicals have taken these quaint, historical little asides in S.Paul’s letters about the place of women in Greek society 2000 years ago as their decisive reason why women still cannot have positions of authority and responsibility in the church today. They call it the “headship” argument and it’s all based on Paul - Jesus had nothing to say on the matter.

Anyway, let’s get back to the letter to Timothy. All scripture, it says, is inspired by God. Inspired. The Greek word is theopneustos which literally means “blown on by God” or “God-breathed”.

Now. When God wants to blow on something or someone, which person of the Trinity has the job of doing the breathing?

It’s the Holy Spirit, isn’t it? The same one the whole Church prays to for guidance when it takes important decisions. The same one we all pray to at Pentecost and at Ordination services. Remember the lovely plainsong hymn? Come holy ghost our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire……………..

And when God breathes, He gives life and hope and warmth.

So the way to use the bible is not (a) as a legal code, or (b) as a list of infallible statements of fact, but (c) as a very mixed bag of human writings through which the Holy Spirit can inspire us. 

Of course, the letter to Timothy was written before the gospels - so it must have been referring to the Old Testament, because that was the only scripture the early Christians knew. But we later Christians can certainly take it that the gospels are God-breathed too. That is where our inspiration is to be found, because the gospels tell us about someONE called Jesus Christ. 

You see, our religion, unlike Islam or Judaism, is not actually a religion OF THE BOOK at all but a religion OF THE PERSON. God incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ. The bible itself is not the object, or idol, of our religion. It is a pointer to the person in whom we find God.

That is why Jesus says to His audience in today’s gospel

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life. But the scriptures testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. 

To paraphrase another saying ofJesus, the bible, like the Sabbath, was made for man, not man for the bible.

All that matters in this life is that we should grow closer to God. And the Holy Spirit gives us many spiritual resources to help us:

·     like our worship here together

·     like you on your knees quietly at home

·     like a sunset we cannot tear our eyes away from

·     like music which brings a lump to the throat

·     like an unexpected little act of human kindness

But the Holy Spirit also invites us to browse among the pages of the bible.

And when I say “browse”, I mean exactly that. We must not be afraid to be selective.

We must have the vision to look beyond anachronistic prejudices against women.

When the all-too-human psalmist says things like “Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock” we must have the decency to ignore him.

We must take the blood and thunder, and very often the thud and blunder, of the books of Kings and Chronicles with a pinch of salt and give them an “X” certificate

Trust the Holy Spirit to lead you, if you so pray, to find those special passages - whether they be parables, prophecies, miracles or the heart-breaking passion narratives - which can best inspire you  at each moment in your journey towards God. 

Feel free to pick and choose. Cuddle your favourite verses and take them with you everywhere. Tell me what they are. Share them with your friends.

For what it’s worth, here are my favourite lines of the whole bible – they’re from the parable of the prodigal son: Luke Chapter 15 Verse 20.

 “While he was still far off, the father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy and clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.”

Spike Wells