Robinson College, Michaelmas 2011
And we have as our theme for this term, the subject of … the bible. And this evening, the sermon is on the whole bible. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible – the version of the Bible that sounds as though it was written by William Shakespeare.
For the last four centuries, the Bible has been available to read, not only for the wealthy, educated and carefully schooled material and spiritual elites. But with its translation into English, the Bible has been available for everyone to read. Of course, four hundred years later, although it’s widely available and remains the world best-seller, virtually nobody does read it.
So this term, we are looking at different dimensions of Scripture as a whole. Nowadays, the different books of Scripture are compiled into a single volume which make it look as though it is a single piece of work. But the Bible as a whole, was put together by various committees over the course of at least a thousand years. So it contains books of law, of history, of poetry, of worship, of letters – and of one genre that seems to have been a new invention: the Gospel.
The Bible has two parts, which trace the history of a particular race of people, the descendents of a man called Abraham. The first part – The Old Testament, is largely taken up with how a nomadic people group settled into the place we know today as Israel. And, not surprisingly, it is a pretty violent read. As any student who has spent time reading the Old Testament knows, it was written and directed by Quentin Tarrantino. Full of mass slaughter, gratuitous violence, and divinely sanctioned genocide. It makes it a pretty difficult text to interpret, when those who hold it to be authoritative claim to be heralds of peace.
The story really takes off when God makes a promise an elderly childless couple, Abraham and Sarah, a promise that he will bless them with numerous descendents. It looks like a ridiculous promise, but before long there are lots of descendents – but when famine comes they seek refuge in Egypt. The generations pass, and these people have become slaves of the Egyptians – and under the leadership of Moses there is a revolt, and the people run from Egypt. They get to the red sea, the waters part – the people rush through and the waters close over the Egyptian army that were chasing after them. An event celebrated as the Exodus.
So – on the other side - the people wander through the desert looking for the promised land – they receive some laws on Mount Sinai, and a few years later, they conquer the land of Canaan. They settle into their twelve tribes, live in different parts of the land and struggle through various bloody conflicts with locals and then with Philistines, until they come to the point where they decide they can only function as an effective war machine if they have a king.
So the first king is chosen because he was very tall, but the second King – David – is the one who becomes a legend. David builds the kingdom of Israel, his son – Solomon – consolidates it – and then the descendents of Abraham enjoy relative peace and prosperity. However, God gets angry with them because of how they treat their neighbours and punishes them by sending a super-power to destroy them. Some of the people in the South repent – so God spares them. But a couple of centuries later, they’re behaving badly again – So God sends another superpower – the Babylonians – to teach them a lesson.
The people are defeated, taken into exile for 70 years, where they learn some humility. While they are there, they form synagogues, read Scriptures – write psalms and so on. It’s also while they are in Babylon, that God seems to have dictated some essays on natural science, describing about how the world came into being. Well, in fact, some prophetic figures among the people put together beautiful poetry about a God of the sky and the land – who had not been defeated as though he were a mere tribal deity.
Then the Persians take over – and let the Israelites return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. Here endeth the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures.
Then it seems that God is no longer in a speaking mood, and it goes quiet for four hundred years. Eventually a peasant builder from the north bursts onto the pages of history, gains a following, marches on Jerusalem to liberate the people from the Romans – but when he arrives, instead of going to the garrison to overthrow the Romans, he goes to the temple to overthrow the tables. He upsets everyone, gets crucified – and then three days later – rumours spread that he is raised from the dead. Four books we call the Gospels… Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: four different perspectives upon the political campaign of a Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
The resurrection suggests that God’s purposes for these people are not defeated. And the pages of the New Testament that follow, suggest that it’s no longer your bloodline that makes you a descendent of Abraham, but your faith. So, the mission of the followers of Jesus, is to invite the whole world to find the story of who they are within this story of what God himself is doing in the world.
So there it is – the Bible. Of course there’s an infinite number of ways you can summarise the story as whole. Lots of Christians will want to say the Bible is infallible, because it is God’s word. But the question of how you hear God speak in Scripture is all-too-often a lazy business. God said it – I believe it – that settles it!
That exact phrase was used by one of George Bush’s religious advisers in relation to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
But the Bible itself offers its own strategy for interpretation. The reading from John’s Gospel speaks about Jesus himself as “The Word!” Which is all well and good, but in verse 14– we see that in this Jesus, the Word becomes Flesh: the slightly detached, free-floating word – finds down-to-earth, pragmatic expression. Okay, we’ve got this book called the Bible, some people will refer to it as the Word of God. But that doesn’t really mean a lot until it becomes a reality, lived out in front of you. The texts we hold as authoritative become meaningful, when they are fleshed out in a person’s life.
The Bible is not an authoritative text for everyone – but everyone will have their authoritative texts. According to Umberto Eco, a text can be a dial on a control panel. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in – are texts, they are communicative acts – that speak of who we are and what is important to us. All manner of texts, from sacred religious texts to adverts, slogans and subtle myths – compete to become authoritative for us. And the only test of which text matters for us – is the one that becomes flesh in the way we live.
I attended a lecture this week – one Youtube - in which one of my favourite theologians – Ross Noble – was commenting on a woman’s right to wear the cross in the work place. He got pretty angry actually, critiquing her claim that she should be allowed to wear a cross as an expression of her Christian faith. And he suggested an alternative: how about being nice to people? Why don’t you express your faith, he says, in the way that you live! That is a great interpretation of Scripture. The word becomes flesh in the lives of people who take that word seriously.
The question is not whether the text before us is made real in the way that we live – it is the question of which text is made real in the way that we live.
The array of texts we read in the Bible, when read well, are texts that promote humanity to flourish and which subvert all that is de-humanising and oppressive. Over the next few weeks we’ll explore how that looks in more detail.
The university of Cambridge has an authoritative text, a motto. And I have no doubt everyone here can recite it in Latin. In English – it reads – “From here, light – and sacred draughts.” Enlightenment, and holy drinks! There will, incidentally, be some holy drinks available after the service this evening in the Auditorium lounge.
But the light and sacred draughts, available here at Cambridge – take the form of enlightenment, the enlightenment that comes from radical exposure to others, at times, others with whom we profoundly disagree, others whose beliefs and assumptions and ways – in and of themselves, challenge us to see the world differently, to engage with one another differently, to live differently. From here, light – and sacred draughts. The immersion in a way of living that seeks for human life to flourish.
It is a motto that harmonises beautifully with the thrust of Scripture as a whole.
And it is a word that becomes flesh in a college like this.
When in conversation, in teaching, in learning, in listening and welcoming and eating together; in a boat, or a football team or a choir, over coffee, over food – we give ourselves to one another in such a way as to receive ourselves back slightly more enlightened, and nourished by the sacred draught of exposure to otherness.
From here, light and sacred draughts.
To interpret a text is to live it out – so that we as individuals, and we as a community, become a living, breathing interpretation of that text.
If the word became flesh, the question it leaves us is which word, whose word – becomes flesh in our living together.