Bible Sunday

Sermon preached on 27 October 2002 by
The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

There are two texts for this sermon. The first runs as a kind of hum beneath the whole thing: from today's epistle reading, 'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly' - with emphasis on the final word. The second text is from the story in John's Gospel, chapter 4, about Jesus' meeting with the Samaritan woman, where Jesus says to her, 'Give me a drink'. By the time I have finished you will see why I have chosen this text.

I don't know whether you happened to be listening to Radio 4 between eight and nine this morning. If you were, you may have felt pushed to and fro with regard to the Bible. There was first a Service of the Word from the Russian Cathedral in Bayswater, with gorgeous music by a choir from Leningrad, including a rich setting of the Beatitudes, and a sermon of high intensity from their greatly impressive Archbishop, Antony Bloom, now in his late eighties. Then we went on to Alistair Cooke's Letter from America, where, unusually for him, he gave us a straight-from-the-shoulder attack on Bible-bashers, who are so prominent in American life and indeed politics - all this in the context of talking about his love of the Old Testament, but not on their terms!

Today is kept as Bible Sunday and the readings directed us, in one way or another, to God's 'Word' of which Scripture is a leading instance. A few weeks ago, James got us to attend to this very subject and showed us that it is less straightforward than some Christians, often noisy Christians, would like us to think. The Bible of course often hits us as bright as crystal, as sweet as honey: the Beatitudes, for instance, or the great parables of Jesus, or stories of his life and suffering. But James showed how impractical it is to suppose that in today's world we can necessarily follow rules designed for life 2000 or more years ago, or indeed harbour ideas that made sense to our ancestors but do so no more. And what a peculiar idea of God it would give us - a God whose mind got stuck at such a time and refused to budge. Having our mind stuck may be partly true of us oldies, like it or not, but God is for ever young. 'God our contemporary', as a slogan used to say. For him, the Bible represents steps on the journey of his people - to be attended to, but not 'the end'.

But let us go more deeply and personally. Think how God deals with each of us, his creatures, his people. He does not treat us as if we were blank sheets of paper on whom he can print whatever he wills. He engages us in conversation - the conversation of thoughts, the conversation of life, in the church community and beyond. We can respond as we choose, but as in our relations with others, we are wise to be humble - to give and to learn and to develop; not because we are compelled but because we desire to be as good and as honest as we can see our way to being; as close to truth as we have it in us to be. And all of us are better at it than we often dream of. After all, we are made in God's image and we should rise to our position. Sinners, yes, but deeper than that, beloved creatures of God.

So God does not dominate, but he prods and suggests and asks. And here the second text comes forwards. Jesus asks the Samaritan woman: 'Give me a drink'. Here we have the one from God, asking, needing. Can God be in need, vulnerable? And can he, via the Bible and other means be seeking our collaboration, not simply seeking to control us?

There is a painting of the episode in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus is a child of twelve. He is taken to Jerusalem and is found by Joseph and Mary in the Temple, with learned teachers of the Jewish law, and, it says, 'both hearing them and asking them questions'. The painting shows the boy seated at the top of a flight of stairs, with the ancient sages ranged at his feet, hanging on his every word. He is like one of those child prodigies who plays the violin better than most masters of the art in their maturity. But that is fanciful and it is not what the story itself says: he was hearing and asking. Jesus in conversation, learning, needing - respecting others: asking, as it were, 'Give me a drink'.

Last year I needed to find a cover for a book I was putting together. I found it in a recent sculpture at Chester Cathedral. It depicts that story of the meeting of Jesus and the woman of Samaria. The two figures are carved as two halves of a circle. He lies, but reaches upward; she almost hovers above him, reaching out with a dish of water. The two are made like mermaids and are carved at the end of their tails; and both pairs of hands clasp the bowl. So the act of giving and receiving is one and single.

Who can tell who gives and who receives? Formally she gives and he receives: but in receiving, he also gives - and the two are one, as the story goes on to show.

And if you say, I'm really not up to this kind of level - I have nothing to say to God or do for God beyond the utterly mundane; I'm a simple soul and like just to be told - what I should believe and how I should behave (even if I don't either quite believe or quite behave!). Well, rise to your stature. There is no higher status than being a creature of God: it's delicate, beautiful and loving. And don't ever let power-freaks bully you out of it, even if they wear the marks of authority.

'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly', it says in the epistle. Not oppressively, not tyrannically - but richly: to bring out the best in us and make us more lively collaborators with the God of our salvation.

The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

Arms of Lady Katherine Leveson

The Foundation of Lady Katherine Leveson
Registered Charity no. 213618
Temple Balsall, Knowle, Solihull, West Midlands B93 0AN

contact us         site map

Sustainable Design - created to work