SERMON: Words that Push Beyond

SERMON: Words that Push Beyond

David Barton’s sermon for BIBLE SUNDAY  26-October ~

I’d like to to tell you a story that I heard on each of the three the occasions I visited New Zealand. The first Missionaries to NZ weren’t very successful. They talked with the Maori People, telling the stories of the Bible, and the Maori were interested.  But no one came forward to be Baptised. After 12 years only one old man came forward, and he died two weeks after his baptism!  All very dispiriting.

But they also ran a school.  And they worked to create a phonic script for the Maori language, which was just a spoken language. Eventually they had sufficient written vocabulary to begin to translate the bible, and they began with the Gospel according to Luke. It was rather a stumbling first effort, as well it might be.  Nevertheless they had it printed, and gave each of the children in the school a copy, and they learned to read it.

Not long after this, the tribe among whom they were working was attacked by another tribe, and several of the children were carried off into slavery.  Among them was a girl of 14 who took with her a copy of Luke’s Gospel.     One day the chief of the tribe who had captured her, saw her reading and was intrigued. He insisted that she read the story out loud to him. So, over the next few days, she did so. The chief was impressed. He was impressed by the whole story, and by the figure of Jesus, and the way he died, and the extraordinary change of the resurrection.  He asked to have it read again, and then he summoned the whole of his tribe to the Marai (the gathering hall of a Maori village, then as now) and made everyone listen to Luke’s Gospel.  For many months they debated what they had heard, asking for parts of the story again and again. And eventually they decided, as a whole group, that they would adopt the faith that the Gospel pointed to.

One morning, the little group of missionaries was startled.   Suddenly a whole tribe of Maoris arrived on their doorstep and asked to be admitted to the Christian Faith.  And after instruction, they were – baptised and admitted. This was a very powerful, warlike  tribe, with a reputation.  Their reading of the Gospel made them change all that about themselves.  Over the next few years they went, in peace, to the surrounding tribes, and told them what they had learned.  The extraordinary fact is that the spread of Christianity among Maori in NZ largely came from the Maori people themselves, and from one girl with her copy of the Gospel of Luke.

And it is interesting that the translation of Luke, was really only a first draft, later to be revised.

One of the things we kind of expect in a holy book like the Bible is that it’s language will be beautiful.  Indeed that is a fact about the Qur’an.  Those who can read it tell me it is in extraordinarily beautiful classical Arabic, spirituality and poetry coming together.  The New Testament, I am sorry to say is not like that.  It is written in ordinary, everyday Greek, and not always the best of that either!   Luke is a good and careful writer, but Mark writes in the rough and ready language of the trading cities of the Roman Empire, sometimes mixing Greek and Latin words together – the equivalent of tabloid newspaper English today!    Paul’s letters are really talk written down, words sometimes tumbling over themselves.  The Book of Revelation is grammatically very bizarre.  All of this was something that even early church worried about. Surely our Holy Book should be better written? they asked plaintively. Some of them went so far as to believe that the poor Greek was all a code, disguising deeper, much more spiritual truths.

But it wasn’t and isn’t code.  The truth is simpler and more profound.  And one that really matters to us.  God comes to us in the ordinary, the everyday.   Jesus spoke ordinary Aramaic, and probably with a provincial accent.  In Jesus God came to stand alongside us, just as we are, to learn our language and to win our trust.  God in Christ even learns our language of fear and loneliness and despair. When we are really low we might perhaps read the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross and think, “These are words of loss and desolation and nightmare that I might use.”

That is what the text of the Bible is doing.  When we grasp that God in Christ knows us intimately like that, and understands us, then ordinary words become extraordinary, and they convey something beyond anything we might imagine.  The words of the Bible, however humble, however stumbling, push beyond themselves into unfathomable mystery.  We can only make sense of the bible if we understand that that is how it works. Don’t read the Bible thinking you are going to read something well written or deeply inspiring.  It only makes sense if we remember that, in God’s hands, the ordinary and the mundane become transparent to eternal truth. Treasure in clay pots.

And that is a pointer to how we might read the Bible.  To read the Bible is to enter into a sort of pilgrimage, a kind of quarrying into meaning.  No single reading will ever give us anything like the whole truth of the passage we are looking at.  There are always more layers of meaning.  Hearing the Word of God is a lifelong pilgrimage.

And in the light of that, a few practical suggestions.

The decision to come forward for baptism among the Maori of that tribe was a group one, after what was essentially a group study of the Bible.  We all read the bible alone.  But reading it with others is to discover something important.   Shared insights, of course.  But there is a power in the group which has the effect of moving each member onwards.  It is friendship and fellowship at a more profound level than the social. It is where we know something of what Christian Community is about.  We have several Bible study groups in the parish at the moment, and if you are interested –  talk to us about it.  But there is always room for more groups. They needn’t be large.   They can be as long or as short as you like.  Why not meet with a few friends for, say, the season of Advent or Lent?   If you are thinking of this, talk to us about it.  We can always help with supporting material.

And then, reading the Bible alone.  But how?  I always suggest to people: From time to time read a whole Book of the Bible. We always hear it in bits.  We need to see the whole of a gospel or the whole of a letter to get its real flavour. Why not try reading a whole book or a letter from the New Testament, say, once a year, or once each six months?

But for everyday reading, let me suggest an ancient way of doing it. Choose a short passage and first read it through to get the sense of it as a whole. But then go slowly through it, pondering each word, imagining the scene.  Open your mind not to reason, but to mystery. Listen, be ready for the unexpected.  Remember: these words carry more than surface meaning.  Let the text speak to you.

When I was at Cuddesdon, Anthony Bloom, who was a great Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in the last century, came to talk to us.  He told us that he grew up in Paris with no connection to the church.  As a young man, a doctor, he was quite happy with that. One day he was invited to a lecture by a Russian orthodox theologian.  He came out of it furious at what the saw as the foolish nonsense of Christianity.  When he got home he decided to read part of the bible to confirm his view.  He chose Mark.  As he read it, he became aware of a presence in the room.  As if someone stood at the other side of his desk.  A presence as welcoming as it was powerful.  And he found himself saying: “If Christ can be present with me here, then he truly is risen.”   And he came forward for Baptism.  That is the power of the word of God.