Monday, May 26, 2014

The Authority of Scripture

The image to the left comes, not surprisingly, from a Baptist Church. It's the claim made underneath the sign that I find interesting - "A Bible-Believing Church." 

That's a loaded statement. And while I cannot know for sure the heart of the congregation that makes such a claim it feels a bit like a gauntlet: that they are what they claim to be in contrast, let's say, to the congregation across the street that has a statue of the Virgin Mary or the one around the corner that has a sign that says, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.' 

Whatever the claim means to suggest, I think it is very unlikely that one would find such a claim made outside of an Episcopal Church. Yet we are, in fact, also a "Bible-Believing Church" even if the interpretation of these ancient texts is contested. 

My favorite collect in The Book of Common Prayer is this one, appointed for use on the Sunday closest to November 16: 
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
It is a more nuanced, but no less powerful claim about the authority of Scripture. Theologically, the catechism draws these conclusions from this way of living with and ingesting Scripture:
Q. Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?  
A. We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible?
Q. How do we understand the meaning of the Bible? 
A. We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.
The Lectionary is a three-year plan, used by Roman Catholics and most mainline Protestants, for reading the Bible. Each year (A, B, C) features one of the three synoptic gospels with John's Gospel mixed in along the way, mostly in the year when Mark is read (since Mark is shorter than the other two synoptics.) It's a good plan that covers a lot of ground and as a preacher I tried to draw on the whole lectionary which if used to its fullest is a twelve-year plan for preachers since once can choose from the Old Testatment reading, Psalm, Epistle, or Gospel each week. (In point of fact most Episcopal preachers function like Marcionites, an ancient heresy that ignores the Old Testament but I'll save that for another post.)

Right now, the Church is in the midst of Year A, which continues through the last Sunday of Pentecost - which this year falls on November 23. The following week, Advent I, marks the beginning of Year B, when our attention will turn to Mark's Gospel.

It should be noted, however, that the lectionary doesn't in fact cover all of the Gospels - not to mention all of the Old Testament or Pauline Epistles. Preachers (and parishioners) need to keep reading the Bible, not Scripture inserts. That is why I have invited readers of this blog to join me on a journey with Matthew's Gospel.

One more word about what I see a gift about using a lectionary. I sometimes hear those from a more "free church" tradition claim that they don't want to be bound by the lectionary. And as stated, I do see it's limitations, especially when the texts other than the gospel reading are ignored. Nevertheless, the lectionary does two things at least: (1) it invites preachers to deal with texts they'd rather ignore and (2) it creates an ecumenical community of learners to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. For years while I was a parish priest I was part of a lectionary group which not only studied together but prayed together and supported each other in the hard work of ordained ministry. And recently I joined a Lutheran group which was studying Matthew together. In a future post I want to share some of what I learned from that day.

But for now I want to put in another plug to invite you to consider reading Matthew in fifty days, starting on June 1. Reading it as a whole will help those who do worship in lectionary congregations to get the flow of the whole, so that in these summer months and into November the gospel readings will be situated (rightly) within this larger narrative context. That's a good thing!

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