Commandments in context

This is a sermon for the sifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is John 14:15-21.

Culturally, I think we have a bit of a problem with the idea of commandments.  We tend to see the level of demand implied by being “commanded” to do something as too high, unreasonable, and certainly not loving; so we tend to prefer to treat commandments from God as something more like “guidelines” or “suggestions” for living.

The problem here, I think, is not that we reject the idea of the oppressive use of power – we’re right to be suspicious of that – but in our misunderstanding of how commandments from God are supposed to function.

See, the thing is that commandments are only one aspect of a much more complex relationship between us and God; a relationship that the Scriptures talk about as a covenant.  That’s a word which describes a relationship which is binding; where both parties are held together in relationship by their mutual commitment to one another.

The idea of our relationship with God being defined by a covenant is not, of course, an original Christian idea.  It’s something that developed in Jewish understanding first; where covenant is the core idea that underpins the distinctiveness of Jewish religion; the Jews are the children of God by adoption and free decision on both sides.  Through that free decision, ancient Jews saw themselves as bound in relationship with God who makes an exclusive and absolute claim on their loyalty in worship and social life, but in response, God gives himself to them in an exclusive and absolute way, as the one who will have concern for their welfare, and see to it that their society is structured with justice as a guiding principle.  And, as a result of these commitments on both sides, community is formed; the community of people who are bound together with God and with one another by their participation in this covenant.

So a covenant between God and God’s people has different aspects; there is the call from God, inviting us into relationship with Him; there is God’s presence to us, and our mutual belonging to one another (us to God, and God to us); there is an element of public witness; and there is the way the mutual love between us and God plays out in our keeping the commandments.

And this is where this ties into our gospel reading today, where Jesus began by saying to his disciples that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  What he is really saying here is not some kind of guilt trip intended to provoke good behaviour, but an appeal to his disciples to live out to the full the reality of the binding relationship between them and Jesus (and, through Jesus, God).  Here “love” expressed in service and obedience is an expression of loyalty; our choices are shaped by our commitment to God, rather than to any other.

In this section of John’s gospel, the account of the last supper, even though Jesus doesn’t use the word “covenant,” (he does in the other gospels), it seems that he is framing his relationship with his disciples as being a mirror or an echo of the Jewish relationship with God.  That’s why we can talk about our own participation in a “new covenant,” one which Jesus created, and the terms of which are spelled out in passages like this.

And this is why the promises in this chapter, are so significant; they are the flip side to our loyalty to Jesus in keeping the commandments; they are Jesus’ (and God’s) loyalty to us expressed in enduring relationship.  So we read here Jesus’ promises that he will enable the disciples to do greater works than his, that he will send the Holy Spirit, that Jesus will return and that the Father and Jesus will make their dwelling among the disciples; that the Holy Spirit will teach them and remind them of everything Jesus taught them, and that they will receive the gift of peace.

These are big promises.  They are – or ought to be – promises which give us a huge amount of comfort and strength to draw on in our pilgrimage together.

These things that I’ve been talking about this morning; God’s choosing us (and our choosing God), intimate abiding relationship between us, God’s presence dwelling in us, keeping God’s commandments, and so forth; these sum up for us John’s idea of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  John shows us that discipleship is a covenant relationship; and it’s a relationship between us and God which mirrors the relationship between Jesus and the Father, in its mutuality, responsiveness, and intimacy.  Ultimately, the disciples are being called here to participate in the dynamic of the relationship at the heart of the Trinity; and this is supposed to give to the new covenant community – the church – our unique identity and distinctiveness from the rest of the world.

The unity the disciples are supposed to share comes from the presence of God dwelling in each of them.  This is, by the way, why the line in the Creed that says “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church,” comes in the section which begins “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”  It’s the Holy Spirit, given to each one of us, which makes us part of the Church, and it’s the Holy Spirit, dwelling in each person from baptism, which makes the Church something other than a random bunch of piously-minded people who decided to cooperate.  The Church is bigger than any institution or denomination, and is the network of all people everywhere who have the Spirit living in them.

It seems very likely that John felt the need to include all of this in his gospel as he wrote to a community unsure of their identity, in a world where their belief in Jesus meant they had to reevaluate all their previous religious commitments (whether Jewish or Pagan).  His gospel gave his community a solid footing for forming their own sense of distinctive identity, one which was robust and inspiring enough to strengthen and encourage them as they worked out how to live and worship as Christians in a hostile world.

Although our context is very different, we have the same need to be sure of our shared identity, so that it can give us strength and courage as we work through our very different – but no less challenging – issues.  These themes of covenant relationship, which Jesus presents so carefully to his disciples here, can be an important help to us in that; to be comforted by God’s continuous presence with us, and to respond with loyalty and love which sees us keep his commandments, not as a burden, but as an expression of our mutually loving and enriching relationship with God.

How will you live out your covenant with God, this week?

Core business

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Acts 2:42-47.

Some funny things happen when Christians read the book of Acts.  I’m thinking of two trends in particular; one is that people read descriptions of the very early church – like the one we heard today – and assume that because that’s how it was then, that’s exactly how the church should be, always and everywhere and for everyone.  And the other is that people read descriptions of the very early church and see in them exactly what they most value or want in their own church experience.  (Which is why, for example, you can have groups as far apart in their habits as the Orthodox and the Messianic Jews both saying that their own practice today is not far removed from what’s being described here.  For myself, of course, I’m quite certain that the prayers these early believers devoted themselves to, sounded remarkably like something from a Book of Common Prayer…)

Put like that, of course we can see the silliness of reading this book through the filter of our own assumptions.  The truth is, of course, that we simply don’t have enough specifics here to be very certain of the details of what happened; we’re deliberately given a bigger picture to work with.  And that means that justifying our own preferences, or trying to read this text as if it was an instruction manual for church, are not really valid or fruitful things to try to do with this passage.

So what can we do with it?

Let’s start here.  This little summary of the fledgling church’s life comes at the end of the Pentecost story.  The earlier part of chapter 2 tells us about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and Peter preaching to a crowd in a way that led to about three thousand baptisms.  And then we get this little bit, which tells us how that new group of believers began to live together.  So this description is being put forward to us as “what happens when the Holy Spirit is poured out on a whole bunch of people.”

And what we see is that that bunch of people – who had nothing in common with one another before the Holy Spirit got hold of them – devote themselves to a number of activities; learning from the apostles, fellowship, breaking bread together and praying together.  And while we don’t know exactly what that looked like for them, what we can recognise is that all of these are things which deepen relationships.  In being devoted to learning together, eating together, praying together, and otherwise sharing a common life – even a form of common property – these early believers expressed their devotion to their relationships with one another and with God.

These acts of devotion are all acts of participation in a community; which here has to be read as something deeper than just getting along in life beside one another, and more like “mutual participation in a shared life.”  The level of sharing happening here – in this group of about three thousand people, remember – is, the historians tell us, unlike anything else in the ancient world.  It most closely resembles the level of unity formed when a couple come together in marriage; (which perhaps sheds new light on Paul’s reflections on the church being one body).

I don’t think we understand, today, how deeply shocking this was.  This was a society where various divisions – men and women, slave and free, Jew and gentile – kept people in separate spheres of life with very limited, and controlled, interaction.  For slaves and free people to share a meal together as equals was unheard of, a scandal.

To give you some idea of how far we’ve come, let me use a story to illustrate.  Now, I wasn’t witness to this, although it was told to me as a true story, so I’m not going to name names just in case facts have been embellished along the way.  But the story goes that, not so long ago, and not very far from here, a bishop in a denomination which doesn’t yet ordain women came out to visit a parish.  The parish priest hosted the bishop for lunch, and invited another key parishioner – a man – to be present.  And while these gentlemen were sitting down at lunch together, the lay pastoral worker in the parish, a woman, ate on her own in the kitchen, since apparently she wasn’t important enough to eat with the bishop.

Today, to us, that’s deeply shocking; not least because we have inherited these stories of the believers sharing meals together since the dawn of Christianity.  But in the ancient world, the opposite was shocking, and everyone sharing in common was felt to be subversive and socially dangerous.  And yet these early Christians did it, and apparently did so with joy and generosity and no social self-consciousness at all (that did creep back in later, as we see reflected in some of the epistles).

So what is it that not only allows, but drives, this level of radical community?  I think there are two key things.  One is trust in God.  These people have had a personal experience of God’s love and joy which is so deep, and so personally significant, that it gives them the courage and resilience to form new ways of life.  And there is hope; these people have seen the beginning of the fulfilment of God’s promises, and together they look for those promises to continue to be fulfilled in this new community.  Everything this passage tells us about the depth of relationship these people shared, is only possible because of God’s active and transforming presence in these people, and God’s purpose stimulating them to a shared vision of what their life should be.

The gladness and generosity of this group of people is a reflection of God as they had encountered Him; a generous God, a God who poured Himself out abundantly in the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  We become like what we worship; and a generous God shapes a generous community.  And their gladness in it shows us that this was not a burden or an onerous thing for them, but something they experienced as good and life-giving.

So it seems to me that when we read passages like this, the question for us is not how we might most closely mimic exactly what this community did, but, like them, how we might most closely relate to one another in the presence of God, so that we might have the same kind of devotion to our relationships with one another.

I’m not going to suggest that I have definitive answers to that.  I might make some tentative suggestions for you to consider; one is that, when the Bible study “for beginners” finishes in a few weeks, that the group who’ve been meeting for that might continue to meet and learn together, and perhaps invite more people to join them in that.  Another is that we might give thought to how to enrich our shared prayer life beyond our regular services; I’m always happy to make suggestions and provide resources.   And while I’m fascinated to see how Hungry Souls is taking off as a group, I wonder also about other ways to share the fabric of daily life, its ups and downs, its cares and joys, in ways that really build a sense of sharing our lives together.

This passage from Acts doesn’t give us a neat list or a blueprint for exactly how we should be church.  But it does give us a vision of a community of deep relationships, and suggests that whatever else God is up to, our relationships are always part of the Holy Spirit’s core business.

Love and happiness?

This is a sermon for Maundy Thursday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

“Love one another.”  It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  It sounds as if it should be pretty easy to work out what it means.  We don’t always feel very loving towards one another, but I think most of the time, we think we know what it would look like if we were loving.

But tonight, as we gather here almost as family, having shared a meal, with me about to wash your feet – those of you who want it – I want to challenge some of our assumptions about what it means to love one another, just a little bit.

One of the things that tends to happen in small churches like this one, is that we base a lot of our decision making, not on being in line with a particular vision of who we are called to be in God, but on keeping everyone happy.  Because we are a small community, and we know one another well, and the cost of someone being unhappy is usually very high – impaired relationships, broken friendships, open conflict and so forth – we tend to value keeping people happy above almost everything else.  And we often tell ourselves that this is what it means to love one another.

But imagine if this was how Jesus and his group of disciples had functioned.  Jesus would have given up on the journey to the cross, and instead pursued political glory, to keep Peter happy.  I don’t know what they’d have spent money on, but some of the memorable stories of the gospel wouldn’t have happened, as the money would have been managed in such a way as to keep the pinch-purse Judas happy.  And no doubt endless time and energy would have gone into managing travel arrangements and meal planning and what not in such a way that nobody would get into a snit about anything; but I’m not sure how much would have got done in the way of miracles and teaching.

They’d have been totally ineffective as a group of people serving the reign of God… but they might have been happier with each other.

The temptation for us – and for lots of churches like us, it’s certainly not unique to here – is to buy into that sort of approach, though.  To spend so much time and energy, to make so many decisions based on not upsetting this person or that one, that we end up becoming a little group completely inward focussed, paying attention to our relationships with one another, but totally ineffective at relating to the world beyond that little web of relationships.  Sweeping conflict under the carpet rather than dealing with it, and even getting to the point of seeing people outside that group almost as irrelevant or a threat to what’s really important to us here, which is how well we can get on together.

And here’s where I’m going to get challenging.  That’s not loving one another; not really.  That’s loving our comfort in one another’s company, for sure.  It’s loving that we have a place where we can feel assured that people aren’t going to challenge us too much, because we have an unspoken agreement that we don’t do that here.

But it’s not the kind of love Jesus taught his disciples, or the kind of love he encourages us to take up in tonight’s reading.

Jesus tells his disciples this, the night before he goes to the cross.  The example of love that he sets isn’t about being comfortable or mutually nice; it’s about uncompromising commitment to a big vision of what God is doing, and doing all that we can, both to play our part in that, and to encourage others to find and play their part in it.  And we know that as he presented this example of love to his disciples they struggled with it!  He had to call Peter Satan; he had to intervene in arguments about who was the greatest; he had to disillusion disciples who thought they were going to reign at his right hand, and remind them that his way led first to the cross, and only after that to any glory.

Why do I remind you of all of this tonight?  Over the next little while this parish will have big decisions to make.  The planning process undertaken by the parish council continues to unfold.  Discussions are being had about the relationship with the neighbouring parish, and how things might best function for both parishes.  The reality is that by the end of the year, I will not be here, and I don’t know who will follow me.

And I am reminding you tonight that as you work through all of that, loving one another doesn’t mean keeping everybody happy.  If you prioritise keeping everybody happy, what you will end up with is a series of insipid decisions, likely held hostage to the emotional state of whomever is most fragile on the day the conversation is had.

I am encouraging you each to participate in that process seeking to do what Jesus did; loving the members of your parish family by seeking the big vision of God for this place, and seeking to encourage one another to find your place within it.  Dream big, seek inspiration, be radical, call everything into question, if that’s what God stirs within you.  Don’t be afraid to put what’s on your heart on the table; if there’s disagreement and conflict, don’t shy away from it but work through it; and if you need help to reconcile after an argument, don’t be ashamed to seek that help.  Even the disciples, after the resurrection, needed a series of encounters with Jesus to work through the issues raised by their behaviour and attitudes.

This parish will need the best of all of you, if it is to be an effective expression of the reign of God.

Tomorrow we will come to the cross, and consider what his commitment to the reign of God cost Jesus, and what our commitment asks of us.  Tonight we have time, a pause, to consider that that cost only has meaning when it is offered in love which truly seeks God’s best for each of us.

Darts in the dark

I don’t do much children’s ministry at the moment, but when I did, I often struggled with what I might describe as the gap between the ideal and the reality.  That is, I might have a clear vision in my head of what I wanted the children’s programme to be, and what I wanted it to offer to the people participating in it… but often, due as much to circumstances out of my control as anything else, what we actually settled for looked quite different.

Today I was reading a report on perceptions of parenting (the report can be found here and is interesting in its own right).  And one paragraph caught my attention.  It said that

“[Effective parenting] is responsive to a child’s individuality and to changing needs, temperament and maturity. This involves tuning in to a child’s interests, perspective and experiences, and interacting with him or her both to address challenges (discomfort, anxiety, confusion, etc.) and to build on strengths (insights, talents, ambitions, etc.).”

It struck me that of course the same is true of effective discipling of children.  And yet I can tell you exactly why this often does not happen, and that is that we don’t know the children well enough.

Not because we don’t want to, but because for many families, being in church once a month or so is as much as they can or want to manage.  The days when children who came to church, came every week and built genuine relationships with their leaders are gone for all but a very few families, at least in my tradition.

So your typical Sunday school teacher or children’s ministry leader tries to plan and prepare activities or teaching materials which will do all the good things described in the paragraph I quoted, but we do so a) without an adequate relationship with the children concerned, to do it well, and b) often unsure as to which of our various children will be present on any given day.  It’s like playing darts in the dark, and then we wonder why we so often miss the mark.

So here’s my plea; if you want the leaders and teachers in your church to be partners with and resources to you as parents, as you seek to nurture your children in faith, then please actually work with us.  Take church seriously.  Make it a priority.  Support us in building relationships with your family.  Communicate with us about all the things it would be helpful for us to know about your child, (or at least, about when you will and won’t be in church).

We care about your children and want to do the best we possibly can for them, but we can’t do that if we simply don’t know them well enough.

The Year of Change

When I was in college, I remember having a guest lecturer once who was famous for having been dean of a Cathedral during a time when its interior furnishings were completely changed and the worship life of the place renewed, with the result of transformed encounters with the people of the local community.  This dean, then, had come to talk to us about the question of leading a faith community through a time of change (and when, I ask you, is a faith community not in a time of change?)

Anyway.  One piece of advice that he gave us was that in order to help people become willing to engage with the challenge of change, you had to spend at least a year telling those people at every opportunity that the gospel is all about change.  That the gospel should change us, change our relationships, change our churches and our world, and that we should not be satisfied with the status quo when we know how far it falls short of God’s will for our world.  But it took a year, he said, for that message to begin to sink in and be internalised into people’s understanding of how things are.

Well.  I came to the two parishes where I am currently ministering just a little over a year ago, at a time for them of very great, and in some ways very unwelcome change.  I remembered this advice from college, and set myself a challenge; that for a year, I would try to preach, at every opportunity, about change.  That I would scour the readings set in the lectionary and ask myself, “What does this have to tell us about God’s heart for change?” and use that as a reference point in my preaching.

It’s been a very interesting exercise.  I was concerned, when I started, that it would be boring; that after a week or two I would find myself repeating the same basic points over and over again.  In fact it has been positively eye-opening, for me as much as for those listening to me.  And I have explored in depth some texts that otherwise I might have glossed over without paying much attention.

Because I don’t preach every week, and on some occasions my “change agenda” had to be interrupted for other important themes, over the year I preached 30 sermons which came out of this concern to build a theology and spirituality of change.  In reviewing those sermons I see 13 on the gospels, 6 on the epistles, 4 on the psalms, and 7 on the prophets.  Now, partly that’s a function of what the lectionary has given us this year, but I found the prophetic texts particularly interesting.  (Maybe in hindsight I shouldn’t be surprised; who has more of a heart for change than a prophet?)

I’ve never done something like this before; usually my approach has been to look at the readings week by week and focus on whatever seemed right at the time.  But I certainly found a longer-term focus enriching and challenging for me.  I’m not sure how the congregations found it; whether they quite realised what I was doing, and whether they found it helpful.  I will admit, though, that by now I feel ready to leave this theme behind (change will always be a challenge to a church community, but hopefully by now we are a little better equipped to reflect on that challenge).

(And I wonder how you, the readers of my blog, found it, too?  Did you recognise the theme or see some consistency in topics addressed?  Did you find it helpful?  All comments welcome!)

So what next?  I am wondering whether to choose another focus for another long stretch or go back to my previous pattern.  I found the experience this time valuable enough to ponder whether it’s worth experimenting with further.  But then, what’s the next priority, I wonder?

A culture of encounter

This is a sermon for the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 21:5-19.

I know that one of the small groups has been doing some work over the last little while on “sharing Jesus without fear,” and although I haven’t been able to go, I’m glad that they’re looking at such an important topic.

In a way, I think this morning’s gospel reading tells us something important about sharing Jesus, too; but it might need a little bit of unpacking to see the implications.

Jesus tells his disciples that when they have an opportunity to testify, (because of being persecuted), they should make up their minds not to prepare their defence in advance, because they will be given the words and the wisdom at the time.  And that’s all well and good, at one level, but one might wonder – especially if, like me, you’re a little bit prone to anxiety and you like to be prepared – why you can’t be given the words and the wisdom in advance, when you’re carefully and prayerfully preparing.

After all, we expect it to work that way for sermons, don’t we?

But the thing I learned at college, when I was being taught to preach, is that good sermon preparation doesn’t start when you sit down surrounded by all the best books, determined to craft the best possible explanation of the text.

Good sermon preparation starts at people’s hospital beds, over cups of tea in the kitchen, in the ordinary things of parish life; and it starts with listening.  It starts with really hearing where people are struggling, what people are feeling and thinking.  And it’s only after you’ve listened carefully to all of that, that you come to the books, ready to make connections between the text and the things that you’ve heard from people’s hearts.  That – or so I was taught – is where a good sermon draws its power from; from the hopes and faith and fears of the people listening to it; the people who have already been listened to and heard and who are now being spoken to with genuine love and care.

That’s the ideal, anyway.  I leave it to you to judge whether or not I often get near it.

But the reason I tell you about that is because it seems to me that sharing Jesus in other situations is a bit the same.  You can sit down and write the best, truest, clearest explanation of the hope that is offered to us in Jesus, but if you share it in a way that totally fails to connect with real people, it’s a pretty pointless effort (and hence we get “Bible bashing”!)

On the other hand, if you can really listen to people, hear their needs and longings and know them for who they really are, then you can respond by presenting the gospel in ways which really connect with those realities.  You can answer need with promise, longing with hope and identity with meaning and purpose; you can present each person with a tailor-made explanation which fits them perfectly.

And I suspect that that’s why the disciples are told not to prepare their words in advance.  Not because the Holy Spirit couldn’t help them prepare an absolutely knock-out argument, but because it would be something totally impersonal, and lacking in any connection to the people who would eventually hear it.  Think how many of the sermons in Acts are given before rulers and judges, and how they weren’t just a defence for the person being accused, but also were an appeal to the ruler or judge to take on board what they were hearing for themselves.  But you can only make that kind of appeal effectively if you’re willing to take seriously the person sitting in front of you, for who they are.

The point of this, for us, I think, is that it shows us how important it is to be people who really listen.  We can’t expect to create opportunities to share our faith in genuinely life-changing ways, if we’re not building relationships in which the other person is really known and valued for who they are.

Listen first.  Then speak.  (Maybe think in between, too).

I think this is one of the things which has made Pope Francis someone so admired.  People talk about his compassion, but it’s more than that; he’s gone out of his way to put himself in situations where he can really listen to, and connect with, people who wouldn’t normally get to speak to a Pope.  And then the things that he’s heard have shaped the way that he speaks and writes, so that the genuine hurts and needs of real, ordinary people are actually being taken into account.

What fascinates me about this is that it’s driving some more “traditional” Catholic people quite nuts.  They think the job of the Pope is to speak first, to articulate official Catholic positions, and to require all the faithful to adhere to them.  Francis’ approach of listening first, and then trying to lead the church in ways which actually open the doors of faith and hope wider, so that more people can walk through them, is to them something of an abandonment of what the church should stand for.

But Francis talks about creating a “culture of encounter.”  A church culture in which our encounter of people who are not part of our church community allows us to relate to them, in ways which allow them to encounter something of God.

And it starts with us listening.

As I think about it some more, this shouldn’t seem counter-intuitive or surprising.  After all, God does this with us, too.  I know it’s certainly been my experience that God meets me where I am in life.  He didn’t tell me, for example, when I was twenty-one and deciding to be baptised, that oh, by the way, eventually this would mean ordination (which is just as well, because I wasn’t ready to think about that!)  No; God knew where I was at and gave me just enough to take the next step.  Over and over again in the Psalms we read about God listening to us; our cries, our prayers, our requests; and responding to us at our point of need.  Not overwhelming us with teachings we’re not ready for or demands we can’t meet, but in his love and mercy measuring his goodness to us by what we can handle.

Of course God knows us perfectly and doesn’t have to get to know us in the way that we need to get to know one another, but the basic principle holds of tailoring what is being given to the person who is receiving it.

So from this gospel passage we can take more than just assurance that the Spirit will help us to find the words to say (although that is there too).  I think we find encouragement not to take on the task of sharing our faith as if it were an abstract thing, but to create a genuine culture of encounter, in which we take other people seriously, and getting to know them and their situation as the starting point for any meaningful exchange.

So that’s my encouragement to you, as we seek to build one another up in Christ.  Listen.  Really listen.  And then trust that God will be at work in what comes after that.

God-breathed

This is a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5.

All Scripture is inspired by God, Paul said.

All Scripture.  What.  All?  Even the bits celebrating dashing infants against rocks, or commanding genocide, or saying a rape victim had to marry her rapist?  (I’m sure you could add to a list of difficult bits from your own knowledge of Scripture).  On the face of it, this statement can seem an affront both to reason and to human decency; so this morning I want to pause and consider it carefully.

It seems clear that when Paul wrote this, he found himself in disagreement and conflict with others.  From the way this morning’s passage references Paul’s persecution in places like Iconium – persecution at the hands of the Jewish community – it makes sense to think that communities led by Paul were in some ways defining themselves over against those with whom they disagreed; and at least some of those “others” were Jews or Christians who wanted to live like Jews.

There must have been a temptation, when the early Christians decided not to live as Jews – observing all the food laws and Sabbath laws and so on – a temptation to set aside the Jewish Scriptures (the only Scriptures Christians had, at this point) as well.  To say to themselves that “We don’t need all that Torah stuff; we have salvation through Christ.”  But Paul says no, that won’t do.  We need Torah and prophets and wisdom and all the rest.  The Scriptures are a foundational element of our identity as well.  We may disagree with others about how to interpret Scripture, but that doesn’t mean we abandon it.

In a way, I’m reminded of a story about King James I of England, when some of his bishops approached him wanting him to push a stronger reformation agenda in the Church of England.  And he told them firmly that it was not enough reason to stop doing something simply because Catholics do it; or else we will end up going barefoot because Catholics wear shoes.  I think Paul’s idea here is somewhat similar; we don’t throw something out just because Jews do it, or we will end up abandoning things which are useful and necessary in the Christian life.  Just as Paul’s community had to deal with wicked people and imposters, we also have to deal with the difficult realities of our own times.  And Paul commends Scripture to us in the strongest terms, as something which equips us to confront and engage creatively with those difficult realities.

So.  All Scripture is inspired by God; or, more literally, all Scripture is God-breathed.  God-breathed is a very loaded term; in the background of Scriptural images familiar to Paul’s audience is the creation of humanity, and how life was given to the first human being by God breathing into Adam’s nostrils.  There is also Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, which are clothed in flesh and brought to life by the Spirit breathing into them.  Paul draws on this imagery to express the same idea; God’s breath is life-giving.  If Scripture, then, is God-breathed, it too has the divine life within it.

This idea carries some practical implications with it.  If we encounter a divine liveliness in the text, we should see the fruit of that in our development in the Christian life.  It’s a bit like, you know when you do a unit of study, and the unit descriptions say things like, “Upon successful completion of this unit, it is expected that students will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of this, and identify key features of that.”  If Paul were putting together a unit of study of the Scriptures, he might well have written learning outcomes which said:  “Upon successful encounter with inspired text, it is expected that Christians will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of salvation through Christ, and identify key features of righteousness, and bear fruit in every good work.”  A living encounter with Scripture is going to actually show that life in our lives.

And that’s why it’s a mistake to take this verse to be claiming some sort of complete inerrancy for the Scriptures, as if they were a history – or worse – a science textbook.  Paul isn’t here claiming that God dictated the Scriptures and every word came from Him, unaffected by the medium of the human being putting pen to paper.  That’s a much later idea, and I think a dangerous one.  Rather, Paul is claiming that in Scripture we find everything we need for receiving life from God.  It’s in that sense that Scripture can be described as an organ of the Holy Spirit; an instrument which the Spirit uses in His work within us.

In that sense, a right understanding of Scripture recognises that we have this collection of diverse texts, because of God’s care to provide for God’s creation, and particularly for the church; and because of God’s desire to repair and heal all that is fallen and broken in this world.  Scripture’s authority as God’s word for us stands on millennia of God’s persistent use of these texts to bring healing and wholeness to the lives of his people.  As people are touched by the life within the text, we are healed, redeemed and placed in relationships with others who have had the same encounter, able to live and work in the world in a way which truly makes a difference.  When we recognise that people who encounter God in these words become more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, and so on; when we recognise the claims the texts make on our own hearts and minds, then we rightly acknowledge the authority of Scripture.

So what about those difficult texts I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon?  I’d suggest that in many ways they mirror the difficulties in our actual lives.  We read violent texts in a culture where much violence has been normalised.  We read texts which seem oppressive of women in a culture where questioning the oppression of women is only really just begun.  By learning to attend to the texts which challenge us – what they do say, and often more importantly, what they don’t say – we can learn to call into question aspects of our culture which we might otherwise take for granted.  By learning to pay attention to marginalised or powerless or vulnerable characters in Scripture, we just might learn to see our neighbours with deeper compassion.  Isn’t it the case – as we look around the room – that many members of our own churches carry many of the same scars and wounds as some of the people we cringe to read about in Scripture?  Confronting abuse and victimisation where it’s portrayed in the Bible may open the door to confrontations needed in real life today.

So whether it’s being encouraged by the joyful texts, or challenged by the difficult texts, it is my prayer that within this community, we may all be able to recognise the Spirit of God and the life of God at work amongst us, mediated by Scripture, as part of our living heritage.