Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on Bible Sunday, 19th Sunday after Trinity, 26th October 2014
Isaiah 55:1-11, Luke 4:14-30

It’s been a challenging week to be a Christian. The other night I was listening to The Moral Maze on the radio, when a panel of people, including the Reverend Giles Fraser and Melanie Phillips, who is Jewish, were discussing the footballer Ched Evans, and the question whether he should be allowed to rejoin his former club and play football again. Had he paid his debt to society and therefore was he entitled to be rehabilitated into society and continue his normal life, or was he in some way disqualified from his previous career because of the nature of the crime that he had committed?

I heard stories about the terrible virus Ebola in Africa. This week we were worried by a couple of instances where people appear to have caught the virus and come to areas which have not so far been affected, in Europe and also in the United States.

We had a report from the new chief executive of the National Health
Service, on what the health service in this country is going to need if it is to survive and continue to give the wonderful service which we expect.

There was a very sad story, here in Cobham, of a 21-year-old boy who was in the middle of a glittering career at university, with great prospects ahead of him, from a wonderful family, who suddenly dropped dead with a heart attack.

I listened to the debate on The Moral Maze about Ched Evans the footballer – and one of the things that rather surprised me was that neither Canon Giles Fraser not Melanie Phillips, the two expressly religious people on the panel, mentioned the Bible. Neither of them tried to relate what had happened and the punishment process which Ched Evans had been through to any passages in the Bible or anything which Jesus or the prophets had said.

In relation to the Ebola virus I have been struck by how it is very much a story about third world countries and poor people. Up to now none of the big drug companies had decided to put any money behind trying to find a cure or trying to develop a vaccine – I hope I’m not offending any of those companies by saying this – until it looked like becoming a threat to the developed part of the world. All of a sudden we now have the hopeful development that GlaxoSmithKline is claiming to have to developed a cure and a vaccine and that they will very fortunately be ready for use very shortly after Christmas; but the observation remains that it does look as though it matters more if you are a rich person in the northern hemisphere rather than a poor person in Africa, if there is going to be an epidemic.

Nearer to home, of course there is the whole question of the future of the National Health Service. The great thing that we all love about it is that it is free at the point of need: in other words it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor; it’s just a question whether you are a human being and whether you are sick as to whether or not you are going to get treatment under our health service.

And finally, the poor chap who died just at the beginning of an adult life, which which probably was going to be very successful and very happy, clearly prompts the question, how could a loving God allow something like this to happen?

To add to those general challenges to Christians, I personally had an interesting thing happen to me this week, which was that I went to attend the inaugural lecture of the new Regius Professor of History in Oxford, Professor Lyndal Roper, an Australian scholar whose speciality is Martin Luther. Her lecture was all about Martin Luther’s dreams. I never knew that Martin Luther had dreams.

I hope it’s not a reflection on the quality of teaching in the diocesan ministry course, but the only revelatory experience involving Martin Luther which I could remember having been taught about was what was called the ‘Turmerlebnis’, the ‘Tower Experience’, when Martin Luther, who apparently was said to suffer dreadfully from constipation, had had to go to the loo in the tower in the monastery where he was, and was said to have experienced spiritual and physical release at the same moment.

Funnily enough, Prof. Roper didn’t mention the Turmerlebnis. It obviously didn’t count as a dream. He had apparently had five other experiences which she counted as dreams, including a vision of a giant quill pen, writing on the door of the church in Wittenburg, where his 95 Theses were subsequently pinned up, and another dream about a cat in a bag, which fortunately did not come to a bad end, but was not simply a question of letting the cat out of the bag.

If we were addressing the task, which Giles Fraser and Melanie Phillips addressed on The Moral Maze, as Christians here at St Mary’s, surely we would have gone to our Bibles. ‘Judge not, lest ye yourselves be judged’: ‘The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons’: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’; and what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, on the question of adultery.

If we looked at Ebola and at the National Health Service as Christians we might remember what it says in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘From each according to his ability and to each according to his need’. We would worry about the huge gap between the rich and poor, the verse which we no longer sing in ‘All things bright and beautiful’, ‘… the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate’.

The fact that we are so keen on the NHS and we think it is so special is surely all to do with the fact that it does not distinguish between the rich and poor. It’s not perhaps so much a question that we don’t approve of the gap between the rich and the poor, but we certainly do approve of something where there is no distinction between rich and poor.

What would Jesus do? Remember what he said to the rich young ruler, that he should give away everything that he had to the poor and follow Him – and indeed he then went on to make the famous remark about it being harder for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven then for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

Shall we quote to the parents of the poor chap who has died, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ [Romans 8:35]. Will that hit the spot with them? Will they listen to that? Will it mean something properly to them? Does it sound realistic to them that that is what God is like?

Well perhaps the first thing to say in relation to all these challenges for a Christian is that in each case I am coming up with a quotation from the Bible. I am going to my Bible first, in order to try to find out what Jesus would do, what God feels about this particular situation.

The difficulty, of course, is that the Bible does not give you straightforward answers; it’s not a textbook in that sense or an instruction manual for life. It’s not a guidebook to the divine. It’s not a description of God and how he works.

We believe that God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent: the creator and sustainer of everything we now about, of our entire life. But we can’t be said to know much about God, in the same way as I know for example how many people there are here in church.

That’s deeply frustrating, because we could easily say that the most important things that we could possibly know would be the things that we can find out about God: but he is the one thing that we can probably know least about! What we can say is that what we do know, what we can infer, starts off with what we read in the Bible. Holy Scripture is the beginning of our experience of God and as such there is nothing more important than what we can learn from Holy Scripture.

There are so many questions – starting with, of course, what is Holy Scripture? What is the criterion by which we decide which books are in the Bible and which books from the same era are out, are apocryphal, or just not part of the canon of accepted books?

Right from the very earliest times Christians have debated what the Bible, the gospels and the various letters of St Paul and the Acts of the Apostles all really mean. What did Jesus say and what did he mean by it? What would Jesus do in particular circumstances? Who was Jesus really? Was He the son of God, and if so, is that the same thing as being God, in some way?

Terribly important questions, because, depending on the answers to them, we are talking about the most important things that we can possibly have in our lives today: that’s why I was particularly fascinated to go to the lecture about Martin Luther.

The Reformation may have happened in the 16th century – and we’re now in the 21st century – but all the various questions, which are relevant to the problems that I was looking at earlier, were around in Martin Luther’s time and he tried to understand better the message of the gospels in order to deal with them.

Was God ‘judge eternal’, inclined to condemn us, stern and unbending, or is he a loving God who forgives us despite our imperfections and our sins? Can we earn his forgiveness by the way we act? What happens to people who don’t know about Jesus and God and are good nevertheless? Are they saved or are they condemned because they are in ignorance?

We all know the story of Martin Luther pinning up his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, mainly aimed at the Pope and his sale of so-called ‘indulgences’: that you could in fact buy yourself a shorter time in Purgatory, which was supposed to be the kind of antechamber to heaven, where you had a chance to make amends for all those dreadful things that you had done, all the sins you had committed in your life, so as to have a sort of second chance to get into heaven.

The Pope was selling the right to shorten your time in Purgatory by making charitable gifts to the church. It all sounds very far-fetched, if not slightly corrupt, now and we’re not really surprised that Martin Luther was against it.

We should perhaps not be too hasty to condemn the Pope because the background to the sale of indulgences was the need to raise money for Saint Peter’s in Rome. It was in fact a parish fundraising campaign by another name.

Who was right? Was Luther right or the Pope right? Was Henry VIII right? Was Cranmer right? Who has the authoritative statement of what Jesus would do in all these various circumstances?

Who has an authoritative view on what the correct interpretation of the Bible in relation to any given instance is? Because you can find contradictory things in the Bible.

Professor Roper had a thesis behind her lecture that in fact whereas John Calvin, the other great reformer, would say that his inspiration was ‘sola scriptura’, only Scripture, only Holy Scripture alone, and whereas the Pope would point to his apostolic succession from St Peter and the tradition of the holy Fathers, Luther could point to revelation, revelation from God, in the various dreams which he had had.

I have to say that I rushed to my copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s great book ‘Reformation’, and couldn’t find any reference to Luther’s great dreams – although the lavatorial experience, the Turmerlebnis, was quite well covered!

The point is, on this Bible Sunday, that whatever view you take and however you fit in with church history and the various strands of theology that have grown up over the ages in dealing with this incredibly important but terribly difficult topic, the important thing is that everything starts with the Bible: nothing is more authoritative.

It may not be the be-all and end-all, and it may not be literally the result of God dictating to somebody, but it is the word of God in the sense that it is the best source we have for our knowledge of God and Jesus; so let us never stop reading our Bibles; never stop wrestling with the words in them and trying to understand them.

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