‘That we might contribute a verse’: Celebrating Bible Sunday 2016

 

October 23 is the last Sunday after Trinity, one that our Church of England calendar permits us to observe as Bible Sunday. This used to irritate me: surely we give thanks for Scripture every Sunday? But then it occurred to me that if we make a special occasion of giving thanks for the Sacrament —which we do in the summer at Corpus Christi— then it is surely right to accord the same dignity to Scripture. Sacrament and word are the two elements married together in the Eucharist, their Christ-revealing character signalled and celebrated by two of the three kisses that are given in every liturgy: first the altar table (place of the Sacramental presence of Christ) is kissed at the entry of the ministers; then the gospel book is kissed when, through its words the Word has been proclaimed and the people have turned to face the reading in order to acknowledge Christ’s presence in it.

 

Having decided to observe this festival, for what are we particularly thankful? First, we are thankful that the Scriptures exist at all. We necessarily know very little about how these manuscripts were formed and gathered into a collection of agreed texts, from about 600 years before Christ’s birth to around 400 years after it. So we are grateful to God for all the poets and prophets, the musicians and mystics, the storytellers, scribes and scholars, the copyists and compilers, the preachers and printers, the translators and travellers by land and sea, without whose love and labour we would not have these 66 books that occupy a central place in the lives of all who call themselves Christian.

 

But what is the precise significance of the Scriptures? What is their purpose? Obviously they tell us something of God, offering a crucial account of that portion of the everlasting converse between God and humankind which Jews and Christians have engaged in for three or four millennia. They also attest to the realisation that a human being is rather more than ‘a certain type of ape on a small planet, circling an insignificant star’[1]: we who are only a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8) are capable of lives of such truth and beauty, wisdom and goodness that we must regard our calling as nothing less than one of loving friendship with God. Like all families who claim and cherish an identity through the stories they tell about themselves, Christians receive identity as Jesus’ disciples through the stories of his life and work set out in the Bible: I know who I am (and how I ought to live) because I have heard and know who he is.

 

This does not mean that we are ‘people of the book’ (dread phrase): we are people of a Person in relationship with other people, and even if one of our prime points of contact with him is through a book, our relationship in the Spirit is with Jesus, Son of the Father. This is always the pattern. As we see in the readings today, the person of Jesus always fulfils the word written about him. What Paul describes as words ‘written in former days for our instruction’ (Romans 15.1-6) lead to a life lived ‘in accordance with Christ’, so that we may come to glorify God his Father. We move from words to the Word to the Source of the Word. Similarly, in the gospel (Luke 4.16-24), the prophet’s scroll is rolled up and put away in the Nazareth synagogue because it is superseded by the Son, anointed for his work by the Father: from words to the Word to the Source.

 

This recognition that the words of Scripture are like the Sacraments —not the end, but the beginning; not the destination but the road— is further emphasised in our Anglican tradition by the insistence that our understanding of God rests not on Scripture alone, but also on our God-given reason and on the tradition of the Church. Thus we are never required to believe anything at which our intellect and conscience rebel (the thought of Jonah, perhaps, living happily in the belly of a fish for three days?). Neither are we left alone to fathom these matters for ourselves: we always approach Scripture in the apostolic and catholic breadth of time and space that the tradition affords us: we read with those who have gone before us and with those on the other side of the world; to say nothing of those of other Christian denominations and religious traditions. It therefore pays us to come to Scripture with a certain degree of care and humility for we come with those from whom we will have much to learn and who may not want to be ceaselessly battered by the clamour of our own opinions.

 

Indeed, the moment we find ourselves hurling quotations like missiles or engaging in a sort of biblical ping-pong to prove at all costs that we are right and everyone beyond our tiny tribe is wrong, we know that we have joined that faithless and stubborn generation that misses by miles the heart of the gospel of love.

 

Which brings us conveniently to our final thought. We noted at the start that there are three kisses in the Eucharist: first altar, then gospel book; and finally at the peace we kiss our neighbour. Of course, in Britain this is usually commuted to a tight-lipped handshake, but a kiss it is meant to be; it is the kiss that marks the third location where we find Christ in our worship: not only in bread and word, but in our fellow human beings also.

 

It is fitting that this should be the final kiss of the three, as it turns our attention from the Church to the World we are called to serve. This is not only a reminder that the Church exists to tend the wounds of the bruised and broken  —and how wonderfully we have seen this in the past week as so many Christians (and others) in Croydon have welcomed refugees and strangers in our midst, as they would welcome Christ himself.

 

It also serves to remind us that there is one book of the Bible that is not yet finished: the Acts of the Apostles, their successors and those baptised and commissioned by them, will continue to be written as long as there is human life on earth. As we give thanks on Bible Sunday for all that has come down to us from the past, we need to commit ourselves afresh to this present time and to our own unknowable future in order that ‘the powerful play [might go on and that we might] contribute a verse’ (Walt Whitman).

 

What, I wonder, will my verse be? What will yours? How will we who are nourished by Sacrament and word continue to play our part in the drama of salvation? We know that it is to nothing less that we are called, and that there is nothing more wonderful, more urgent and more blessed than that we should respond.

[1] William Boyd: Sweet Caress, 52.

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