May 23, 2022

Read the Bible: Live Dangerously!

A Sermon Preached by Ms Leslie Spatt Choral Evensong, Sunday 22nd May 2022 Matthew 28:1-10, 16-20 The Bible is really a dangerous book. All sorts of things are found in…

A Sermon Preached by Ms Leslie Spatt

Choral Evensong, Sunday 22nd May 2022

Matthew 28:1-10, 16-20

The Bible is really a dangerous book. All sorts of things are found in it, sex and violence, love and death. Sayings which have led to genocide, persecution and oppression. How can we judge which bits – if any – have to be believed without question?  Especially if everyone is allowed to make up their own mind about the meanings of what it says. The Bible contradicts itself constantly, says kill your enemies in one place and then love them in another.

The Gospels can’t even agree on the ‘right’ words for the Lord’s Prayer. It condones slavery, says women must not speak in church, allows polygamy.  No wonder then that the Church insisted on complete control over the Bible for so long, that only certain special people were allowed to even read it, let alone teach others what they thought it meant. So how can anyone decide if anything at all in the Bible is what we define as ‘true’.

Whenever I hear someone insisting on sticking to the supposed ‘plain and simple’ message of Scripture I’m always tempted to comment that Scripture is never simple and usually never plain.  The Bible always needs interpretation. Unfortunately very few of us are encouraged  – or enabled – to question, debate and discover the meaning of what we read in the Bible, to look past the words on the page; for us, in English. In translation – which always means being filtered through human minds and, yes, prejudices.

A super-smart, academically accomplished former curate of this church once said that ‘it’s every Christian’s duty to know enough New Testament Greek to smell a rat in translation’. Well, yeeeesss, good idea – but that’s well beyond most of us in the pews. And unfortunately, what the words literally say is often given more importance than the message, the meaning.

The other big barriers to understanding what Scripture has to say to us are the distortions of time and context, plus the lack of any original manuscripts to act as an ultimate authority.  Everything in the New Testament we know today dates from the genuine letters of St Paul written between about 48 and 60AD to the latest bits from about 110AD. But the oldest scrap of the New Testament we have today is a tiny piece of a copy of John’s Gospel, controversially dated to between 100 and 150 AD. Everything in the Bible we rely on today comes from copies made by hand, usually many times over.

Editors and scribes made mistakes when copying manuscripts, added things to perhaps make texts clearer to a particular audience, or omitted stuff which they might not agree with. The 4 Gospels were all assembled between 65 and 110 AD. So as well as the problem of ‘what is original’ – which nobody knows for sure, including what Jesus actually said – there’s a huge gap in understanding between what things meant to the writers and listeners of the 1st century Eastern Mediterranean world and what they mean to us now. We think differently in the light of nearly 2000 years of knowledge. We don’t now believe that epileptics are possessed by demons, or that blindness is caused by the sins our parents committed. Or that being rich and prosperous means that you’re in God’s good books.

The Gospels make it obvious that Scripture is neither simple nor plain.  While the baptism, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are found in one version or another in all 4 Gospels, they just aren’t the same when it comes to details. One angel or two at the Resurrection?  Mary Magdalene as the first witness or Peter? Does this mean that one is really true and the others are somehow faulty, or wrong?  And there’s plenty of material in one Gospel which doesn’t appear in another one; John’s Gospel doesn’t have the same Last Supper as the other three – he talks about footwashing instead of bread and wine.  Or the structure and words of similar sounding stories are different – the order of Jesus’ temptations in the desert is different in Matthew and Luke. There’s no resurrection appearances by Jesus in the original version of Mark, but plenty scattered throughout all the others. Do these differences matter?

The Gospels aren’t eyewitness history, or even history as we know it. Their purpose is to offer a theological meeting with Jesus the Christ and to understand his place in God’s plan for humanity.  What happens if what we read isn’t what we today call ‘true’, as in ‘it happened like this and I have the evidence to prove it’?  Does it matter if what the Bible has Jesus saying isn’t Jesus at all, but an editor making up his words to get across a message? And, even more importantly, what’s the effect of teachers, preachers and (sadly) manipulative religious demagogues across the ages insisting on their own interpretations being the only true meanings, which have to be believed, or else?

One example where taking what the Bible says to be literally true can become a very dangerous assumption is in tonight’s reading: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’ Did Jesus say this? Actually – no.  We hear a later editor of Matthew speaking, not Jesus. There wasn’t any developed theology of a trinitarian concept of God, certainly not given by Jesus himself, when Matthew’s Gospel was first circulated, probably about 80 or 90 AD. By Matthew’s time, baptism was a requirement to be an accepted member of the Jesus-following community, but the words used were probably a simple assertion ‘Jesus is Lord’.

In its original context, when Matthew’s Gospel says ‘go and make disciples of all people’, it means invite and then enable everyone – not just the original Jewish followers of Jesus but also any Gentile –  that’s us, everyone – to participate in building the Kingdom Jesus was preaching about. Matthew’s Jesus wasn’t saying ‘convert the world to believe in me’ but rather ‘make disciples to work for God’s Kingdom.’ He wanted to enable everyone to live the values he taught, what we call Gospel values, in order to make the world a better place. It wasn’t about getting more people into church.

What the Church interpreted it to mean, much later on, was that everyone had to be baptised in order to be saved from going to hell. It was the duty of every Christian to make everyone in the world believe in Christ. Forcible conversion of non-Christian communities and Victorian African missionary activity comes to mind. It was overwhelmingly focussed on growing church attendance numbers and a long way from Kingdom stuff.

And believing that those words, translated into English along with being explained in a particular way, were to be obeyed as literally true often led to them being used as a tool of some serious oppression. Scripture of the 1st century was yanked out of context and narrowly interpreted to suit one particular objective. It was, in a way, a betrayal of Jesus himself, of his inclusivity and insistence that everyone was welcome to come to God without preconditions.

Sacred texts like the Bible can be very dangerous. Who controls them? How do you read and then understand them? Should everyone be obliged to conform to the same interpretation? Use and abuse of the Bible is very close to the heart of what has been tearing apart the Anglican Communion regarding power, women, sexuality, relationships, and so much else.

The Bible matters – very much. It’s up to us to be responsible for questioning it, wondering about what it all means, educating ourselves about it and above all reading it. Not to be complacent about always letting someone else interpret it for us. The Bible will never stop being dangerous because it’s so challenging; but alongside that danger it’s inspirational, life changing, beautiful and lots of other things.

So… perhaps we can learn to live dangerously…

Leslie Spatt ©2022


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