The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evening Prayer online      24th January 2021
Scripture, Christ and Revelation
Handley Stevens

Psalm 33 

OT Reading: Jeremiah 3.21 – 4.2

NT Reading: Titus 2.1-8, 11-14

The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all (Titus 2.11)

The Bible is a wonderfully diverse collection of books which together map the evolution of our human perception of God, but for Christians the definitive focus of all Scripture is found in the ultimate revelation of the truth about God in the life and death of Jesus Christ.  It is that revelation that we celebrate throughout the season of Epiphany, as we ponder such texts as the one I have chosen from Paul’s letter to Titus.  The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. Or in St John’s words (John 1.14) the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth. 

Whether we choose the language of St Paul or St John, we have in these words a distillation of the fundamental truth and purpose of all Scripture, which underlies both the historic choice of books for inclusion in the Bible, and the contemporary selection of passages for inclusion in the lectionary.  If we turn back just a few pages from Titus to Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we read that all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3.16), and the letter to Titus is written in that mode of instruction.  We read how older men and older women, young men and young women, should behave; and then we would read about the proper behaviour of slaves – except that the lectionary doesn’t expect to find very many slaves in a twenty-first century congregation, so we miss those verses out.  Besides, St Paul accepts the institution of slavery in uncritical terms which we can no longer regard as consistent with the truth about God that has been revealed to us.  All of which is a rather long way of saying that whilst all Scripture may indeed be inspired and useful for teaching, we do need to be selective, where we believe that the Holy Spirit has moved us on since they were written.  

In this evening’s readings, for example, even after we have excluded Paul’s views on slavery, it was not so easy to find the gold of inspired revelation amidst all the dross of contemporary advice addressed to a community of Christians living in the Greco-Roman world of the Imperial period in the closing years of the first century AD.  Our understanding has moved on since then, and we shall be better advised to follow Paul’s wise advice elsewhere to ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2.12).  But there was that golden nugget left buried for us, and we should cherish it.  In Jesus the grace of God has indeed appeared, bringing salvation to all.  

There is much loose talk in some circles about ‘the authority of Scripture’ but I hope I have said enough, on the basis of this evening’s reading from Paul’s letter to Titus, to persuade you – if you need persuasion – that we must apply our God-given powers of judgment and discrimination to what we read in the Bible.  We are on much safer ground if we test what we think we are being advised to do against the sense of the Biblical message as a whole.

There are many metaphors around which may help us to develop a mature and helpful relationship with the authority of Scripture.  Psalm 119 speaks of Scripture as a lantern to our feet and a light on our path.  Origen described it as a ‘field, filled and flowering with all kinds of plants’, beneath which lies a ‘hidden treasure of wisdom and knowledge’.  Some more recent commentators have spoken of Scripture as a ‘witness of divine revelation’ or as ‘a mode of divine presence’.  One contemporary commentator, wary of the very word ‘authority’ writes:

For me scripture is better imagined as the context in which we live our Christian lives.  Scripture is the environment for the church.  Scripture is the space we inhabit, the sanctuary where we meet God and Jesus by the guidance of the holy spirit … It is the air we breathe, the water we Christian fish swim in.  (Dale Martin, Biblical Truths, cited in Theology 123/6).

What many of these metaphors lack is any coherent sense of how the different strands of Biblical literature – fact and fiction, prose and poetry, myths to explain the origins of life and apocalyptic visions of a distant consummation – come together in a unity which is greater than the sum of their different parts.

On their own the books of the Old Testament understandably find their focus in the fulfilment of the ancient promises concerning the destiny of God’s chosen people, and the restoration of Jerusalem to which the whole world shall flow bearing offerings of tribute.  It is an alluring but dangerous and divisive vision, particularly when given concrete expression whether by medieval Christian Crusaders or by contemporary Zionist nationalism.

For us Christians the focus of all Scripture is Jesus, whose pivotal life and death is both the true fulfilment of the hopes and prophecies of the Old Testament and the generative source of new life for the Christian community to which we belong.

The metaphor I find most helpful is that of a compass.  Treating Scripture as our compass does not in itself tell us which way to go, but since our compass points to the truth about God, we can use it prayerfully and intelligently to orientate ourselves in a complex world.  We have seen recently in the United States just how important respect for the truth is.  We cannot trust those who peddle lies, even when - perhaps especially when - they are dressed up as ‘alternative facts’. 

But the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. The Truth revealed in Scripture, and definitively in Jesus, is the compass which will help us to find our way to that city which has no physical location in this world, but is our heavenly destination, the new Jerusalem, that place in the hearts of God’s faithful people where the God revealed in Jesus reigns forever, not just in truth, in justice and in uprightness, as the Lord God promised to Jeremiah in our first reading, but in that all-embracing love which has reached out to us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.  

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