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Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Discover & explore: God's written word

Discover & explore services at St Stephen Walbrook feature music and liturgy with the Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields. These services explore their themes through a thoughtful mix of music, prayers, readings and reflections:

“A perfect service of peace in our busy lives.”
“Spiritual food in the middle of the day.”
“Beautifully and intelligently done.”

The current series of these services of musical discovery is exploring Reformation 500 themes and continued last Monday with the theme of 'God's written word'. The service featured the Choral Scholars singing: 'God be in my head' by John Rutter, 'Psalm 119', 'But the word of the Lord endureth forever' by Samuel Sebastian Wesley & 'O for a closer walk with God' by Charles Stanford.

All Discover & explore services begin at 1.10pm:

Mon 15 May - Through Christ alone
Mon 22 May - God loves you
Mon 29 May Bank Holiday – Church closed
Mon 5 June - Baptism saves
Mon 12 Jun - The Lord's Supper
Mon 19 Jun - The Cross alone
Mon 26 Jun - Forgiveness is free
Mon 3 Jul - Life of repentance

In today's service I shared the following reflection:
In the first Discover & explore service of this series, we reflected that the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity were later summarised in five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation known as The Five Solas. These included Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.

The key implication of the principle is that interpretations and applications of the Scriptures do not have the same authority as the Scriptures themselves. Luther said, "a simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it" and this was consistent with the intent of the Reformation which was to correct what Luther asserted to be the errors of the Catholic Church by appeal to the uniqueness of the Bible's textual authority.

Sola scriptura, however, does not ignore Christian history, tradition, or the church when seeking to understand the Bible. Rather, it sees the church as the Bible's interpreter, the ecumenical creeds as the interpretive context, and Scripture as the only final authority in matters of faith and practice. As Luther said, "The true rule is this: God's Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so."

Lutheranism, as we heard in today’s reading, loves and treasures the Word of God. The Scriptures are the sole source for doctrine and practice. The Scriptures deliver Christ to us, and for this we rejoice. As we heard in Colossians 3. 12 - 17, we are to let the word or message of Christ dwell in us richly as we worship together.

But for many people this raises as many questions as it answers because it is simply not possible for us to read scripture without interpreting what we read. All reading of scripture is interpreted reading. There is no ‘plain’ reading of scripture which does not involve interpretation. For scripture to be understood there has to be a struggle because the text has to be re-interpreted over and over again in terms of each generation and each culture. Engaging in this struggle may be what is meant by letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly.

The missiologist Lesslie Newbigin has helpfully unpacked some of what is involved in doing so. He wrote that: “The Bible is the body of literature which renders accessible to us the character, action and purpose of God. Taken as a whole, the Bible fitly renders God but this can only be understood as we are in engaged in the same struggle that we see in scripture. This is the struggle to understand and deal with the events of our time in the faith that God creates purpose, sustains all that is and will bring all to its proper end. The Bible comes to us in its “canonical shape”, as the result of many centuries of interpretation and re-interpretation, editing and re-editing, with a unity that depends on two primary centres - the rescue of Israel from Egypt and the events concerning Jesus - events, happening in the contingent world of history, which are interpreted as disclosures, in a unique sense, of the presence and action of God. However, the interpretation has to be re-interpreted over and over again in terms of another generation and another culture. The original interpretative language becomes a text which in turn needs interpretation. Yet the text cannot be eliminated. The events are not mere symbols of an underlying reality which could be grasped apart from them. What is presented in the bible is testimony.”

“The Bible is the book of community, and neither the book nor the community are properly understood except in their reciprocal relationship with each other. It is this relationship that is the clue to the meaning of both the book and the community. The Bible functions as authority only within a community that is committed to faith and obedience and which is embodying that commitment in an active discipleship embracing the whole of life, public and private.”

A final helpful way of understanding how the Bible can function with authority in our lives was set out by former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright. He describes the story of the Bible as a five act play (containing the first four acts in full i.e. 1. Creation, 2. Fall, 3. Israel, 4. Jesus) within which we can understand ourselves to be actors improvising our part on basis of what has gone before and the hints we have of how the play will end:

"The writing of the New Testament ... would then form the first scene in the fifth act, and would simultaneously give hints (Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end ... The church would then live under the 'authority' of the extant story, being required to offer an improvisatory performance of the final act as it leads up to and anticipates the intended conclusion ... the task of Act 5 ... is to reflect on, draw out, and implement the significance of the first four Acts, more specifically, of Act 4 in the light of Acts 1-3 ... Faithful improvisation in the present time requires patient and careful puzzling over what has gone before, including the attempt to understand what the nature of the claims made in, and for, the fourth Act really amount to."

Wright concludes that he is proposing "a notion of "authority" which is ... vested ... in the creator god himself, and this god's story with the world, seen as focused on the story of Israel and thence on the story of Jesus, as told and retold in the Old and New Testaments, and as still requiring completion." As Lesslie Newbigin has written, this story is understood "as we are in engaged in the same struggle that we see in scripture"; that "is the struggle to understand and deal with the events of our time in the faith that God creates purpose, sustains all that is and will bring all to its proper end." This is what I think it means to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly and to make the Bible authoritative in our lives.


Open our eyes, that we may behold wondrous things out of your law. Open our spiritual eyes to show us the glimpses of glory we cannot see by ourselves. Give us the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Jesus, having the eyes of our hearts enlightened. May we see that the works of God stand as marvellous mountain ranges in the Bible, but also see that the highest peak, and the most majestic vista, is the person and work of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Remind us of the sufficiency of your grace to produce genuine change in our lives. Allow seeds from Scripture to bear real, noticeable fruit in tangible acts of sacrificial love for others that we might be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving ourselves. May your word shape and inform and direct our practical living making us more manifestly loving, not less, because of the time invested alone in reading and studying your word. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

May we experience the great goal of Bible reading and study as this: knowing and enjoying Jesus. This is a taste now of heaven’s coming delights. This is eternal life, that we know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. In this way give direction, focus, and purpose to our study that we may press on to know you, the LORD. May this form great yearning and passion in our souls, so that we count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as our Lord. May we keep both eyes peeled for Jesus until we see how the passage at hand relates to Jesus’s person and work. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.


The Blessing

Go now in peace, knowing that you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.


Charles Stanford - O, For A Closer Walk With God

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