Two weeks ago our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd launched the Australian edition of the Poverty and Justice Bible. Whatever you think about Kevin Rudd and his politics, we should not forget how amazing it is that we live in a country in which the Prime Minister of the day is willing to launch new editions of the Bible. There are not many other places that we could live where that would happen today.
The Poverty and Justice Bible is distinctive from other versions of the Bible because it highlights 2,000 passages which speak directly about the alleviation of poverty, the care of the elderly and the importance of those on the margins of society and not just those in the centre. I have not seen one of these Bibles yet, but I gather that if you buy one, all of the passages which speak about God’s priority for the justice and the care of the oppressed are in orange print, so that they easily stand out from the rest of the text which is in black.
The idea of having Bibles which highlight certain kinds of texts is not new for us. I suspect that a good number of us have on our bookshelves at home, or have had in the past, a copy of the Zondervan red letter Bible. They were very popular in this Diocese at one stage as Bibles given out at Confirmation. In the red letter Bible every word that the Biblical authors ascribe to Jesus is printed in bold red, so that they stand out from the rest of the text.
More recently the Jesus Seminar, a group of radical and liberal theologians and Biblical scholars, including some Australians (but mainly Americans) has published a version of the Gospels which gives different colours to the words of Jesus according to whether the group believes that Jesus actually said them or not. After a process of discussion and reflection on Biblical texts, the members of the Jesus Seminar vote with coloured beads to indicate how strongly they feel the argument is for words ascribed to Jesus being actually said by him, and in their publication they print the words of Jesus in various colours to indicate the extent to which they believe that Jesus actually said them or not. Those colours help to highlight what they believe to be the authentic words of Jesus, as opposed to other sayings in the Gospels which they believe were developed some time afterwards.
This highlighting of particular texts is nothing new in the Christian tradition. A few hundred years after the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, bishops gathered together in synods for heated debate over which books should be in the New Testament and which should not. And our New Testament today is a product of those bishops deciding which Gospels, and which letters highlighted what they believed to be the most important, and authentic and accurate accounts of the life of Jesus and of the early church.
Martin Luther, one of the great fathers of the Reformation tried himself to remove books from the New Testament which had been agreed by those early bishops, and when he failed to do so, he ensured that they were moved to the back in the hope that they would read less often. As a direct result of his actions, the Gospels and the letters of Paul are highlighted for us in our Bibles today (because they appear at the beginning of the New Testament) and the letters of Hebrews, James, Jude and the Book of Revelation are found at the back of our New Testaments, because Luther hoped that we would not find them there.
Every time we approach scripture, we pray that something will be highlighted in the text for us. Bibles with different coloured print can be helpful, certainly decisions about which books should be in the New Testament and where they should be placed have had an impact on our reading of scripture, but at the end of the day what is most important of all, is that the Holy Spirit is present with us to illuminate the text as we break open God’s word.
As Anglicans, we believe that the Spirit of God that was present throughout the very complex process of the New Testament coming into its final form, and is present each time a group of scholars provide us with a new translation of the text, and each time a group help to highlight certain things in the text for us – as Anglicans we believe that the same that the same powerful spirit of God is present with us each time we open the scriptures for ourselves.
We never read the Bible alone, even if we are physically the only person in the room. Our reading of the Bible comes alive because God’s Spirit is with us. That is why when I read the Bible in my study at home every morning and evening I come to it (when I am alert to what I am doing) expectant that God will say something new to me, even through a passage which I have read many times before.
As Anglicans we believe that the Spirit of God which was in the Church when Christians wrote the Bible, and when they edited it into the books which we have today, is present today as we interpret the Bible in our own context. So it is worth asking, every time we have read a passage from scripture, what God is saying to us through the holy interaction of the Bible, and our own experiences, and God at work in both. What will you say if I ask that question as we leave Church today?
What grabbed your attention in the readings which we have heard together at this Eucharist? Did you hear something new? Did the Holy Spirit highlight something for you in what you heard?
The creation narrative from the Book of Genesis is probably very familiar to all of us. It is the second of two theological reflections about how the world came to be, and the place of humanity within that world. It is a text that many of us know very well, and certainly one that I felt very familiar with when I approached it in preparation during the week.
I do not know if anything sprang out of the text for you (I have not asked you yet) but for me it was one word. The word “good.” Remember the central pronouncement of God in the creation story? Throughout the first chapter of Genesis, God has said one thing about his creation over and over again. God creates, and God stands back and looks, and God sees that it is good. But now (in the passage which we heard this morning), as God looks at all that he has made, at everything, he says that “it is not good.” It is not good that man (and here man means not a male person, but a human being) should be alone.
I have to admit, that I had never really noticed that before. Think about it for a moment. Everything else is good, but this is not. The story points us beyond God’s wonderful, purposeful creation of the world, to something that is not right, that is not yet complete. It is not good that the human should be alone. Which is rather perplexing in itself. Because the symbol of God’s purposeful creation of you and me, of humanity – this Adam – is not actually alone at all. First of all, God was with Adam in the garden, which is quite a lot of companionship; and then alongside God there are animals and all of nature. In a sense the whole world is there with that first man… some of us might imagine that it could not get any better than this, to be out in a perfect garden by ourselves, without any other humans to bother us – people pay a lot of money for those kinds of experiences these days.
But God says, “it is not good,” because his creation is not yet completed. As long as that human lives in isolation from other people, the creation of a good, a complete human being has not yet happened. So what will make creation good? Well the writers of this ancient story knew from their own experience. In order for God to complete creation, to make a whole human being, the other person, Eve, needs to be created as well.
Some people have taken this story as a kind of blueprint to say that no one can be whole unless they are married. Which is obviously not true given that the Christian tradition has always presumed that Jesus himself (our model of wholeness) remained single. But the story does point to a truth much deeper than that superficial reading of the text – the truth that we human beings can only grow into who we are created to be, (with and through others), through relationships and through human community.
In the life of the Church we show the value of our human closeness with others through solemn vows. The most obvious of those sets of vows do relate to marriage (when two people commit themselves to form a new community together), but there are others as well.
Bob and Ruth, and in due course Luke, will make vows of ordination – binding themselves to Christ in the life of the Church. Most significantly (because it relates to all of us) we have all in the life of the Church made vows through our baptism binding ourselves to the death and resurrection of Christ and to one another as his body.
God’s creation is not really good until one human is in community with another. The total goodness of God’s creation is not complete until that point. At it’s heart, that is why we are called into the life of the Church as well. Because without something like this community we simply cannot be very Christian. In spite of, or more likely because of, both the difficulties and joys which other members of this assembly bring for us.
One of the central insights of Christianity is that being a part of a real, human, chunk of the body of Christ is essential to any serious Christian growth. Like marriage and family (for some), parish life, church life, is not really about agreement, success, having our needs met, or happiness. It is about growth into wholeness.
There are times when things do not go as we had planned. When despite all of our best intensions things have gone wrong. That can be as true of marriage vows as it can be of ordination vows, and its most certainly true of baptismal vows as well. There are sometimes situations in which separation is the only option that contains hope and the possibility of healing. We have all known that reality. But there is also an important thing about these experiences, about the times we fall short. We see them as tragic exceptions to the way we know life should be, and the way we want our lives to be.
We know that we often miss the mark of our convictions and our beliefs. Yet even in the midst of our failure, we continue to stand firmly for the truth of God’s vision of life. Our vows: our marriage vows and our baptismal vows, these are not for just now, they are not for just when it feels good; they are for life. Because they are so central to what it means when we say that God created the world with purpose. This is what Jesus is trying to grapple with in our Gospel reading this reading.
The whole thing is prompted by some Pharisees who are trying to set him up, but Jesus turns the discussion around to point away from what is failing (in this case the failure of the hopes of a marriage which have led to divorce) and instead points his disciples to the next generation, to the little children who he gathers to himself and holds in his arms and blesses. Symbols of the future hope that one day things will be right when the Kingdom of God is fully here.
It seems to me that this is why we as a Diocese are engaged in the vision of Ministering Communities in Mission. We know that the goodness of God’s plan for every one of us, is caught up not only in the beautiful creation around us, which sustains us, but in the building of community together. Which is why the Church is never a private club or membership society, but always a vehicle for extending God’s love to others through human companionship and friendship.
As ordinary and as unglamorous as they usually are, our living out of our marriage vows (for those of us who are married) and our baptismal vows (for all of us) are vastly more than this. They are sacred mysteries, built into creation and into human nature. They are gifts of a loving God. For it is not good to be alone; and the only way to goodness, to wholeness, is through commitment, relationship, community, and the grace of God. Those are gifts which we are each called to share with others.
What grabbed you about the readings from the Bible this morning? And how will they change what you do this week?