Bible Sunday: 5 Virtues to help with reading the bible

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Our two readings this morning contrast quite strongly in tone. They could be more different, given some of the passages in the bible, but still they vary enough. The first  (Colossians 3:12-17) encourages five virtues: ‘compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience’. It is explicit that we are to forgive because we are forgiven. Love binds everything together. 

The second (Matthew 24:30-35) brought signs of power and glory, loud trumpets and mourning. Look out for the signs and take note. One reading was cuddly and comforting, the other warning and rallying.

The Bible has texts for whatever mood we are in. If we are wanting to bang a few things around we can find something to match. If we want to breathe fire and shout in anger and retribution, we will be able to find a passage to suit. If, however, we aim to reconcile and bind up wounds, we will be able to find words of comfort and hope. And there is much in between. It is not a book with a single tone because it is not a single book. Rather, as we know so well, the bible is a collection of books written over around 1,000 years. 

What is more it is not set out in chronological order – oldest at the front, most recent at the back, though Revelation may well be one of the later ones and some of Genesis carries very ancient stories and myths.

It is an extremely complex collection of books and they can be read by opposing sides in an argument providing ammunition that can be flung across the divide. We can see this to our shame in the most contentious debates and will no doubt do so again when the study document on human sexuality is finally published in November. Used like that, it does no more than reflect the prejudices we bring to it. And that of course, gets us nowhere; it becomes a tool for a dialogue of the deaf.

I want to suggest this morning that those five virtues in our first reading are a good way to approach how we read this incredible library, this spiritual well of wisdom and inspiration, and truly make it a light to path and a lantern to our feet. We can then have some hope of being able to walk in its ways and delight in its truths.

We have to let it tell its story or stories, to slowly and patiently reveal its secrets or perhaps better, treasures. And the treasures are not always on obvious display. To find some we have to dig deep to allow them to come out. So patience and humility, from those virtues, would be very good places to start with how we read it. And in that we need the compassion that listens deeply to what it might be saying. This is a slow boil, not an instant buzz. Anyone who wants to know more about the bible has to be prepared to get to know it slowly.

To have compassion is to be open to what the other may have to say and be ready to sit where they sit, to see the world through their eyes. That requires a letting go of ego, it requires meekness. This is to be surprised by grace and being open to see what we may previously have just not been able to see. One of the things I value highly about the bible is its ability to surprise me, even when I have read books many times before.

I wrote in the newsletter this week about Paul’s letter to the Philippians, how it has more relevance to the frustrations of this pandemic and its restrictions than I might have expected. Paul was, of course, locked up in prison rather than locked down, but still he sees beyond the frustrations to the opportunities it brought to encourage, to share hope and to delight in blessings. I suspect that was a hard-won insight – it is certainly one that only comes after a bit of a struggle for me, but then one of those virtues in Colossians is patience.

The final virtue is kindness. I suggest this grows out of compassion, humility, meekness and patience. It is to see in the other a reflection of that treasure. This is what Helen Julian, our preacher at the beginning of the month, refers to in her wonderful little book ‘Franciscan Footprints’ on Francis and Clare. She talks of celebrating the ‘this-ness’ of the other, how they are a unique and particular gift. And for those whom we find it hard to recognise this in, it may be that our kindness will help it shine out, where it is being obscured by the pain that masquerades so often in anger, in hatred and hardness of heart.

How ever we read the bible will shape how we live it and that is where it becomes the light for our steps and the lantern for our feet. It is no good saying ‘Lord, Lord’, if we don’t meet our neighbour’s needs. The faith of God in Jesus Christ, who is grace let loose among us and for us, is to be lived as we seek to be signs and instruments of his hope.

We celebrate the Word of God, the Word of life, reflected in print and enfleshed in Jesus Christ. He calls us to follow him and may we find the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience inspire how we read the bible so that we can mark, learn and inwardly digest so that love can indeed guide our feet into the way of his peace.

Sermon for Bible Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 25th October 2020

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare's Church - Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus', was published by Sacristy Press in 2017. There is a hymn based on this 'Christ the Saviour'. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his posts and on social media.
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