This evening we cover the second in a series about the Bible, partly to mark the 400th anniversary of the so called, ‘Authorised’ version of the Bible, in old English language. The trouble is, it sometimes can seem as through the reason we call Christian Scriptures, “Holy Scriptures,” is because it comes to us in that language full of “thee’s and thou’s.” As though Holy Scripture were simply a bunch of quotations from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
So why is it that Christians call their Scriptures, “Holy” Scriptures? Is it because it’s better than the Scriptures of other religions, or because it’s full of rules and regulations dictating how Christians should be holy, or is it simply that it’s full of thee’s and thou’s? It seems more likely that Christians traditionally believe that, when they immerse themselves in the pages of these books, they encounter otherness, a radical exposure to other ways of inhabiting the world, to other ways of being. And if that is true, if, when engaging seriously with the writing in this book, we encounter One who is wholly other than we are, whose ways call us to different ways of living and relating and being, then there is one command in this book that precedes all others. The command to hear.
There is a strong tradition in Jewish and Christian circles, that much of the writing in this book is contained in micro-cosmic form, in the call to love God and love thy neighbour. But even here, this command to love God is preceded by the words, “Hear, O Israel… Hear O Israel.”
But of course, we don’t want to over-interpret one simple word, do we. No. We already know what it means to hear, to listen. To listen, is to keep your trap shut for long for the other person to finish their sentence before you wade in with what you already know you were going to say anyway. Listening. You may even have been sent on a listening course, in which you are taught to show that you are listening to another person, by the way you nod, smile, and give that knowing and pseudo-thoughtful frown before declaring, “I hear where you’re coming from…”
It’s too easy to know assume we know what it means to hear. And of course, if we cannot hear … there is no point pretending we have read Scripture as Holy Scripture.
And if we are honest, those who make the most noise about Scripture being Holy Scripture, do not always have the best reputation for being able to listen well. After all, if you have become Christian, you have considered some facts, made your decision and committed to being a Christian. From now on, it’s closed-minded certainty all the way to heaven… listening well to others is only likely to shake your faith, expose you to unsound beliefs, and contaminate you with dodgy doctrines.
Listening well, hardly seems like a cardinal virtue for modern, Bible-thumping Christians. And there is a profound mis-match here, with what seems to be a cardinal virtue of the contemporary world – this virtue of being open-minded. You have to be open minded, or worse still, tolerant. We all know, you should never be so arrogant as to think you’ve got it all stitched up, that you’ve got the answers to life, the universe and everything. That you are right and the rest of the world are probably wrong. No, no – were supposed to be open-minded.
Which is fine as a generality – as some general moral ideal – but, the moment you become specific about anything at all, again – those who make the most noise about being open-minded, are among the most closed minded people you’re likely to meet. It’s easy to be theoretically open minded, to demand open-mindedness from others and to be holier than thou with those we consider to be closed minded.
The point about Holy Scripture, is that it offers a particular way of being open, a particular way of hearing. Because in Scripture, it is recognised that listening hurts, that listening properly to another person – never mind God himself – is a painful business. To hear someone is not simply the technical business of processing airwaves through various biological and linguistic mechanisms.
To hear someone is to be exposed to radical otherness. This is why, throughout the pages of Scripture – welcoming the stranger is such an important business. One New Testament writer even claims that by welcoming the stranger – we could unwittingly be entertaining angels. Not necessarily an effeminate heavenly being in drag – but rather, we are highly likely to encounter the voice of God in those with whom we profoundly disagree.
I suppose the most obvious example I have seen, was in my last post in London. The Corporation of London have a strategy to end rough sleeping by 2012 – for obvious reasons. And it was back in 2008 – that police and council workers went round rough sleepers in the city, hosing them down with water in the middle of the night. So, I grabbed a bunch of church people and went out to sleep rough… and sure enough, we got hosed down. So I carried on sleeping rough in Fleet Street. And eventually, the Corporation of London invited me to chair a meeting with some senior members from their housing policy committee. So, I took along some sympathetic charity workers and just one church member.
And the politicians tried everything, everything to side-track us, to infuriate us – and it was a strange meeting to chair. But in the end, my church member had been well trained, and she listened well to Chief Superintendent of City Police, to the Executive Director of Broadway, and to the Senior Housing officers. And once they had made their case, they asked my church member why she had been part of the team sleeping rough. And she gave her answer – and they pushed and pushed and pushed. Until, in the end – she threw up her hands and said – “because this is how it works in the Bible and we take the Bible seriously.” At which point they asked her to read some. So she turned to Isaiah, and read to this public meeting from the New International Version. At which point, the senior representative turns round and says, “I’ve never heard anything like that. It is a case well made. And there and then, on 24th July, 2008, the Corporation of London changed its policy on rough sleeping as a result of hearing Scripture. Not simply, hearing Isaiah read at a meeting, but seeing the actions of a group of people who were trying to interpret Holy Scripture by living it. It’s a fairly crude example – but it shows at least, the capacity of Holy Scripture to make a real difference, to real people, in the real world.
Not that you become a doormat for other people’s views. There are times when listening well to another person may result in us parting company – once we have heard what they have to say. But even there, a sacrifice has been made, and we have communicated more than are likely to have done if we jump in with trying to convert people to our way of thinking.
To listen well is a sacrifice. And Holy Scripture is alive with the pulse of radical listening. The beating heart of Christian scriptures, is the resurrection of Christ. And yes, we may want to recite creeds that state that we offer our theoretical assent to the fact that the God of Israel once performed a conjuring trick with bones… But really, to say that we believe in the resurrection, is to claim that the way we live, is living proof of resurrection as a reality.
And to live this resurrection life, starts with listening well. The capacity to be broken and remade – hear, O Israel. The exposure of our treasured values and beliefs and hopes and dreams and goals and priorities, and lifestyles and habits… All of those things are up for grabs when we claim to believe in the resurrection. Everything that we value and treasure and worship – including our belief in God himself – is put on the line when we listen well to another person.
That’s not to say, of course, that every cup of tea and chat we have with another person will precipitate a new moral crisis for us. The resurrection life, to which the New Testament writers draw us, is to cultivate the attentive disposition – to listen well to others, to Scripture, to God. To develop habits of good listening – a lifestyle which the reformer, Martin Luther, described as having a little baptism every day.
Now a daily baptism would be a bit much, even for a Baptist. But… there is a regular practice, a disclosive practice, that we are called to celebrate regularly. Holy Communion. It is in this bread and this wine, that the story of Israel and our story converge. The story of who we and who God is, the story of what we are about, and what God is doing in the world – somehow come together.
Because in this bread and wine, is embodied something of what it means to listen – the sacrifice, the capacity to be broken and remade. As we picture again a Jesus who was silent before his accusers – before a legal economy and a religious economy, Roman and Jewish leaders who rejected the politics of this would-be messiah.
The bread and wine speak of our belief in death and resurrection – not as a bizarre anomaly of scientific reality – but death and resurrection lying at the heart of what it means to be human. Death and resurrection as a lifestyle cultivated by his followers. Death and resurrection, made real in our lives as we listen well to one another, cultivating an attentive disposition. When we come back to hear Scripture as those who have celebrated this meal well, by God’s grace, it might just be true that we encounter Scripture as Holy Scripture.