20th May, 2007

The Seventh Sunday of Easter, the Sunday

Sermon Preached by the Rector, Fr Ian Elliott Davies

Acts 16: 16-34, St Paul’s preaching, imprisonment, jailer converted
Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20-end, “I am the Alpha & Omega”
St John 17: 20-end “that they may be perfectly one”

So then, which parts of the Bible should actually be read out aloud in Church? Is it edifying to our Sunday School children or Sunday morning congregations to hear some of those blood-thirsty, blood-curdling passages where Philistine, Moabites, Hittites and Hivites, Hittites, Jebusites, and all those other ites are slaughtered by the thousand or to hear how Noah gets drunk, or to learn that Jacob, without qualm or worry, practices willful deceit and lies to get what he wants out of life? It’s not just the Old Testament either that’s a problem, St Paul, when he really puts his mind to it, can be pretty unpleasant on occasion as well calling his opponents “dogs” (a term very much more insulting in Greek than it is in English) or in one of his epistles where he virtually yells at women to stop chattering in Church, to cover their heads with scarves or hats and to get on with the job of obeying their husbands- without question.

Well, our appointed New Testament reading from the Revelation to St John the Divine this morning highlights this dilemma of what we should read out aloud and what we should pass over in silence. We are told, and if you look at the heading of the printed lection from Revelation you can see, [there are those extra dots there…..] that certain verses of chapter twenty-two are omitted. We are supposed to skip over the list of those who won’t be let into the great City of God: now, of course, admittedly it’s not a particularly appealing list, sorcerers, fornicators, murderers and idolaters, but I presume the liturgical committee that sat down one sunny afternoon to decide what should be left in the reading and what should be read aloud or what should be left out of the reading, they imagined that on a Sunday morning at Mass most congregations would rather not hear certain difficult verses. I hope this next bit tickles you as much as it tickles me….just to add a touch of irony to our questioning about this lectionary omission the committee also decided to omit the verse in Revelation that says “if you omit any portion or verse from these writings God will add plagues and pestilence to those who omit them.” I trust whichever busy Diocesan advisor, busybody clergyman did this, I trust they truly realized the irony in their coffee-break from being busybody lectionary advisors!!

I must confess to being unhappy about this committee policy of “political correctness” of omitting certain verses from Biblical readings because those verses were “deemed unhelpful” or upsetting. Firstly I think it’s condescending to congregations- our Parishioners are more than capable at spotting racism, sexism, violent struggle or just downright plain prejudice when we hear them read out at Mass or study them at home. But more importantly, and rather more subtly, I believe it is very important for all of us to learn the lesson that although the Holy Bible is exactly that- the Holy Bible and it is most certainly the revelation of God’s relationship with his people through thousands of years, it is the revelation of Christ’s words to his followers and to you and me and it is the revelation of how the earliest Christians lived, worked, preached, loved, prayed and got on with each other- or did not get on with each other, as the case may be- although the Holy Bible is the Holy Bible it also contains the harsh reality of life and it contains some very, very dreadful things within its pages as well. I don’t think we should airbrush those dreadful things out for the sake of having nice, comfortable, entertaining worship Sunday mornings.

If, for example- and this one is very close to home- the Holy Bible says that “all women should keep silent because it was Eve and not Adam that was deceived in the garden of Eden by the serpent”, thus the Bible says in I Timothy 2:12-15, then, appalling as those words are they must be heard- these are words we must listen to. We must listen to them, so that, listening to the written word, interpreting the written word in the light of the incarnate Word- in the light of Christ- we may challenge and refute them. You see the way the Holy Bible is read is not a matter of someone sitting down privately at home and deciding for themselves what the Bible means- for example, that all women should keep silent- the way that the Holy Bible is read is that the Bible is part of the life and rhythm of the Church, the Bible is an integral part of our common history and our worship and our liturgy, the Holy Bible informs our history and challenges our life- but this process also works the other way around as well: and this is where fundamentalism has got the entire edifice of what passes for the Christian message wrong. The life and history of the Church tells us that the central, the decisive part of the Bible is the revelation of Christ, the revelation that God speaks, God utters his word and it comes to life in Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Most Sacred and Holy Trinity: therefore, everything else, all the words of Scripture, all our history, all our worship and liturgy are and must be judged, must be measured, must be defined in him and through him, and with him- this is what the sacramental life of the Church is about: the Bible teaching the Church and the sacraments of the Church nourishing and giving life, expression and dynamic to Holy Writ.
God forgive us: When the debates about slavery were at their most virulent and vicious there were verses of the Holy Bible that were used in defence of slavery- St Paul, after all, talks about slaves being obedient and faithful to their owners: there’s even an entire epistle in the New Testament that deals with slavery. But, and this is where the life of the Church both challenges the Bible and is challenged by the Bible, the deeper, more decisive words of Holy Scripture and the sacramental life of the Church are that “in Christ there is a new creation, in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Gentile nor Jew for all are made [and being re-made] in God’s image” and therefore all are deserving of respect, decency, honour and freedom: slavery is an abomination, a very [true] abomination, when understood in the sacramental light of Christ.

These very questions and thorny problems inspired artists, musicians, thinkers, scientists, industrialists, politicians, ordinary men and women and children five hundred years ago at the Reformation, and also two hundred years ago with the abolition of slavery: what I want to know is how can we ask, what questions might we raise today, to spark imagination in minds, in souls, in hearts, what kind of questioning can we help set in process/ can we provoke so that it can ignite the kind of cultural shift- re-training or re-learning of grammar so that people can see, can understand, can in their turn ask questions that will bring life and nourishment and imagination. In an age of mere celebrity and entertainment how do we retrieve our heroes and saints who show us the true beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty.



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