The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      25th October 2020
What do you REALLY think of the Bible?
Jeremy Fletcher

Read, Mark, Learn, Inwardly Digest  

A sermon bor Bible Sunday 

The collects, the prayers set for Sundays and for special occasions, come from a range of sources. The one for today, Bible Sunday, is rightly famous, and one phrase from it has taken on a life beyond the place of prayer: “read, mark, learn, inwardly digest”. It was written for the first complete prayer book in English in 1549, probably by Thomas Cranmer himself, and was set originally for the Second Sunday of Advent. Because it is so focussed on the place of Scripture in the life of the Christian it has more recently been moved to the Sunday – now called Bible Sunday - where we look particularly at Scripture and the life of the followers of Christ.

 

What do you really think of the Bible? Really. I read the Bible most days with a praying community at Evening Prayer – you are all welcome to join. 20 minutes, on Zoom, from the comfort of your own sofa, as long as 5.00 is convenient for you. We do not always find the Bible passages easy. Sometimes they are downright incomprehensible. Once a month we hold a Bible Book Club, where we look at one of the 66 books of the Bible and see what we’ve noticed. We do not always find it easy. Sometimes it is downright incomprehensible. Occasionally a thoroughly sound, orthodox baptised member of the Body of Christ here will even say that they wish a book, or a part of a book, was not in the Bible.  These are complex writings, compiled over thousands rather than hundreds of years, and how they function and what they tell us is not simple to describe.

 

 Cranmer calls them Holy Scriptures, plural, and that helps. The Bible is not one book, but many. They were written in different contexts and times in history, and those contexts and times are as important as the times and contexts in which we hear them. This is a dynamic relationship. We need to be as alive to who is hearing and when and where they are hearing as to the times in which they were collected, and the times since in which they have been used.

 

In the Letter to the Hebrews the “Word of God” is described as being “living and active”, and that helps too. Any piece of literature has a life at the time it is encountered along with the life when it was written. The Scriptures go beyond this: for the believer they have a life where past and present are united by the Holy Spirit to enable transformation and new life to happen right now. This is a dynamic relationship, where the believer allows the words to become the word of God, enabling a relationship with the Word, Jesus, the Christ.

 

Cranmer’s prayer says that through the Scriptures we embrace the new life of Christ.  It took time to compile the Bible as we know it. Some books and letters were proposed for the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures which followed which didn’t make the final cut. You may sometimes wonder at the ones which did, but the process was all about seeing what lasted, what carried “the hope of everlasting life…in Jesus Christ”, which were the words which communicated the Word.

 

The collect goes on to say that the Scriptures are “written for our learning”. The phrase comes from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 15, and refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, which had been largely agreed by Paul’s time. Cranmer applies the phrase to the two Testaments, not just the First. It’s important to recognise a key point which John Barton makes in his excellent A History of the Bible (2019), that “learning” can be taken in two related but not identical ways. We can discover many facts about the Bible, and study the way that its texts have been influential on culture outside of the community of faith. And we can also “learn” as people of faith, as those who see that these words have power and influence way beyond their objective sense, that they are normative, contain truth, offer relationship with the living God, have influence on the way we live, contain the means o salvation.

 

Many people outside the community of faith happily learn about the Scriptures, if only to find out what much of Western art and literature is going on about. Universities have to run basic Bible courses for this very purpose. But inquisitive people also enjoy knowing where phrases like “my brother’s keeper”, or “the skin of my teeth”, or “the powers that we” come from, let alone “the wealth of nations” or “no peace for the wicked”. You don’t really need to know which King had a brass bedstead 13 feet long and six feet wide, but there is that kind of learning too. The Bible makes god pub quiz material: what did God make on the fourth day of creation?

 

But for the believer there is more. The kind of learning which Cranmer speaks of is about change of life, not the filling of the mind alone. We “learn” the Bible by living it, not just storing up the facts. This is about interpretation and application, about seeing how in our homes and work places and in our leisure time the Bible’s teaching cashes out. So the prayer goes on from “read” to “mark”: not just underlining, but making sure it makes its mark in us. From “mark” to “learn” to be taught so that we change. And to “inwardly digest”. This is about being nourished so that we live. In some Christian traditions the person reading the Gospel at Communion goes for a blessing from the priest before the reading, and this phrase is used – “may the Lord be on your lips and in your heart, that you may worthily proclaim the Gospel.” It’s a reminder that it is not enough to have the Bible in our heads: the word of God is about what we say and feel and do – how we are, not what we know.

 

Bible Sunday invites us to be in that dynamic relationship with the Scriptures, that, inwardly digesting them, our lives may be transformed. As with food, so with the word: we need a varied diet, regular nourishment, in palatable form and with interest and flavour. You do not need to be a theologian or an expert an ancient languages. Faithful people have worked tirelessly to enable the word to be, as Cranmer would put it, “understanded of the people”. His collect reflects his period, where the Scriptures had only been made officially available to people in English in the previous decade or so. Some people gave their lives for that to happen. If you give yourself to reading, marking, learning and digesting, you may also find out that God made the sun, moon and tars on day 4. And the king with the big bed was the one with the the best name. Og, King of Bashan.

 

 

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