Sermon at Evening Prayer on the Third Sunday of Easter 2021
There is something important about the strangeness of scripture.
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 18th April 2021 at 3.00 PM
Research publicised by the BBC this week has brought the documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls back into the public eye. In the 1940s and 50s, a huge cache of ancient scrolls was initially discovered by Bedouin shepherds, in the Judean Desert, on the north side of the Dead Sea. These included almost the whole of the book of the prophet Isaiah, other texts from the Hebrew Bible, and some first century writings which are not universally recognised as scripture. This extraordinary treasure trove offered up a vast quantity of new information about some parts of what we know as the Bible, as well as telling us much more about the kind of people who were part of the community at Qumran. Many of these were almost certainly part of a Jewish sect called the Essenes (from which some scholars have argued John the Baptist emerged) and members of the priestly cult of the Jewish Temple. This most recent discovery was made with the help of Artificial Intelligence. Scientists in the Netherlands are now able to say that the whole Isaiah scroll was written by two scribes alone, whose writing is almost identical. They also help us to understand a bit more about this copy of Isaiah, including the type of ink that was used. Discoveries like these make the biblical world feel that little bit closer to us, we understand a bit more about it, perhaps it seems that little bit less foreign.
And yet, there is something important about the strangeness of scripture. Part of its strangeness is straightforwardly about age and culture. These are ancient texts, from worlds really only known to experts. I can’t imagine there are many people who hearing this afternoon’s second lesson, think, “Oh yes, it’s the Nicolaitans, what can’t I tell you about them?!” As a child, I remember a wise old priest encouraging me not to read the book of Revelation unless I had a good commentary alongside me. The message to the Church at Pergamum, which we heard read this afternoon, is relatively straightforward compared with the seven seals and 144,000 redeemed who emerge over the next few chapters. Martin Luther was one of several prominent reformation thinkers who had a very ambiguous view of this book – at first, he thought it was simply not of the same status as the Gospels and Paul’s letters, and in any case, it was just exceptionally difficult to interpret, not least in a vernacular bible. It’s hard for us to imagine the extraordinary shock and comfort of hearing the bible read in Church in our own language for the first time. It’s no wonder the apocalyptic language of Revelation fuelled all sorts of millenarian fantasies and images of cosmic battles. For Luther and other protestant reformers, it became all too easy to turn to Revelation to map out one’s own theological bias: for the 144,000, read those who are ‘elect’, and for the beast, or Satan, or the Whore of Babylon, read the Pope. As the religious polemics of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries raged, seeing one’s own causes and situations prophesied or alluded to on the pages of scripture was a way of inserting one’s own narrative into broader salvation history. This wasn’t just the prerogative of the Protestant side – for the English Catholic polemicist Gregory Martin the ‘City built on a hill’ mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 5, became the city of Rome.
In one sense, both Catholic and Protestant sides were just further developing the tradition of reading scripture typologically – that is to say that events or images recorded in scripture find their fuller meaning (even fulfilment) in other images. Sometimes, these great scriptural stories become patterns from which later communities draw inspiration. The Israelites journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land has frequently been used in theologies of liberation, from William Wilberforce to Martin Luther King, and from the shanty towns of south America to the occupied territories of the West Bank. This image of Exodus-liberation is important today as we hold our churches to account on issues of gender, race and sexuality. The dynamics of Christ’s one liberating mission are discernible in a variety of contexts, in which we uncover yet another unfolding of the depth of that mission.
There’s a very ancient and venerable example of typology contained in today’s first reading from Exodus. The bread from heaven which goes some way to satisfying the Israelites hunger in the desert is understood typologically, centuries later, as an image of the Christian Eucharist. It could even be said that Jesus himself begins this tradition in John’s Gospel, when he refers to himself as the Living Bread which has come down from heaven. This tradition of typology – of images referring to other realities – is poetic, it helps to link the Old and New Testaments, and it stops us from falling into unthinking biblical literalism or fanaticism. But it’s important to remember that for Christians, this method of reading scripture has a focus and a centre – and that is what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. We don’t get to score points against others by finding a ‘them’ in some of the rougher images of scripture, any more than we get to buffer our own party credentials through others. And the strangeness of scripture itself protects us from trying to systematise things too much for our own comfort.
The reformation had a lot to say about scripture, more even than the reformers’ insistence on the vernacular and the interesting ways in which they played around with typology. One of these insights is the insistence on tota Scriptura: the ‘whole’ of scripture. Whilst we rightly engage with specific texts, seeking deeper understanding, fascinated by textual or other historic discoveries relating to particular stories or traditions, the Church engages with scripture as a whole. Poetry alongside history, letters and occasional material alongside visions, ancient biography alongside ancient legal texts. It is a deeply strange collection of material, which witnesses to how our ancestors understood the fundamental truth we call God, and sacred because it contains and celebrates that living memory. It must – in some senses – remain strange, with endless connections to be observed, knots to be untied, because it witnesses to the God who is both beyond our comprehension and nearer to us, in Jesus and through the power of His Spirit, than we can perceive.
It is a salutary truth that the task of the biblical translator or the scriptural commentator is never fully done. There is always more strangeness to be explored and encountered. And some of it will remain, well, just strange, no matter how many textual or historical details we can amass. But the strangeness is a quality we should not shy away from. It is a strangeness which attracts rather than compels. Through the witness of the whole of scripture – tota scriptura – we know the mighty acts of God in Christ engaging with the diversity of the created world. This is a feast for us to encounter; not just a library to read and understand, let alone try and domesticate, but a living record of God’s reconciling love which reads us, binds us together with strange neighbours in the past as well as the present, and testifies to the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit.
We listen to scripture together, primarily, not to learn new facts or gain clarity over a particular question, but instead, to quote a hymn written by Bp Geoffrey Rowell to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, to encounter together ‘a faith that comes through hearing, translated into life.’