Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"The Word of God" and the Parable of the Seeds

This sermon was preached on Wednesday 16th of July in the middle of a tense period for the Anglican Communion - a period of debate over such issues as women bishops, and the legitimacy of gay ministers.

The Parable of the Sower would perhaps be more accurately called the 'parable of the seeds' - because the story Jesus tells is much less about the man who sows the seeds, than about what happened to them after they were sown. Its a parable that is actually quite difficult to preach about, because - unusually - Jesus' own explanation for the parable is recorded alongside the parable itself.

But the parable does rather beg one very important question. What is 'the word' that Jesus refers to throughout the story. What is this 'word' which can be snatched away by the evil one, or fallen away from by the person who has no root, or choked by the lure of wealth and the cares of the world?

I'm going to tell you something rather controversial now. Something that might shock you a little...so its something that I really want you to think about for a moment. I wonder what you think when you hear people in different parts of the church describe the Bible as 'the Word of God?' Because you see, I don't actually buy into that phrase. There. That's shocked you, hasn't it? So, let me tell you why I don't think the Bible is the 'Word of God' as such...

Let me try to explain by using an illustration. Imagine, if you can, a world in which the Bible does not exist. Imagine that instead the only things we had to go on, to try and understand what God is like, is all the words that have ever been written about God by all the hundreds of thousands of people who have ever claimed to have got a glimpse of what God is like. There would be the book of Mormon, the Koran, Gospels written, supposedly, by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but also Peter and Barnabus, and Judas and Mary. There would be books by people like David Ike, and the Jehovah's Witnesses. There would be theological treatises by Pope Benedict and the Archbishop of Canterbury. There would books of poetry and myth like Jonathan Livingston Seagul, or The Prophet by Kahil Gibrahn. But no Bible. No definitive collection of books which we can turn to and say, with certainty, this is God's Word, with a capital Wuh.

That was precisely the situation which pertained in the year 397 - when a Council was called in Carthage in order to agree which books were 'in' and which books were 'out' of what is called 'the canon of Scripture' - or in other words, 'the Bible'. Put your imaginative hats on again. Imagine again that we were living in a time in which the Bible had not yet been agreed. Imagine then that you heard that a council of Bishops had just met in Carthage...and that they had considered all the books which have ever been written about God, by all the different people I just listed - and many more - and that they had decided which of these books were 'in', and which of them were 'out'. How would you feel about that decision? Would you be able to trust that these bishops had got it right? Would you be content to accept their judgment? And before you answer that for yourself...just think about how many things Bishops in the church argue about, even today.

I think most of us would be pretty suspicious of such a decision. I think we'd want to know which books were excluded, and why. The press would have a field-day, wouldn't they, looking through the list of excluded books, and wondering why a certain Bishop had argued so strongly for it to be excluded or included?

But that is exactly what happened. In the process of agreeing which books could be in the Bible that we have today, many many other writings about God were excluded - some of which might just deserve to be heard by thinking, intelligent people who want to make up their own minds about God. I wish I had time to explore with you some of the books that were not included...but that will have to wait!

So what we have, when we pick up our Bibles, is a glorious library of texts which have been handed down to us over thousands of years. Many of those texts are, I believe, indeed the Word of God - his expressed wishes and commands to his people, as understood by people who knew God well, and understood God's character and desires for humanity. But many of the texts are a reflection of human beings' attempts to understand who God is - and sometimes, frankly, they got it wrong. There is poetry. There is myth. There is song. There is history - although as we know, two people's accounts of the same historical event is always tricky! What we don't have is a set of texts, dictated word for word by God to a scribe...who then faithfully preserved God's words for us down through the centuries...unaltered. That, incidentally, is what the Koran claims to be...the actual words of God, received by Mohammed, and then preserved for all time. But that is not what the Bible claims to be. Nowhere in the Bible does the Bible itself say 'this collection of scriptures contains the Word of God, the whole Word, and nothing but the Word'.

The upshot of all this is that I treat the assembly of books that we have received as the Bible with a little bit of healthy scepticism. You see, God did not want us to base our faith on a book...he wanted us to base our faith on a person...ultimately on the person of Jesus of Nazareth. That's why Jesus came among us. Not to lay down a rule book that we have to slavishly follow...Jesus himself never wrote a word of the Bible down. He wasn't even very clear about what we should think or do in some situations. Some of his reported statements seem to contradict one another. He often spoke in parables, without explaining their meaning to ordinary people. Instead, he came to show us what God was like...and how we should respond to God and to one another. And what did he call us to do..."Love God, and love one another"...as I said last week. Simple. Straightforward. No questions asked!

All of this is by way of saying that I feel very sorry for people who hold on to these historical, fascinating, inspiring, thought-provoking texts as if they had been written down, word for word, by God himself. God must weep when he sees us arguing over the minutiae of individual texts - arguing about, for example, whether or not the world was created in six days, or whether homosexuals have a place in his church, or whether it is legitimate to ordain a woman as a bishop. Jesus must be saying "Is this what I came for? So that my church could divide itself into ever increasing factions over whether or not there should be a pope, whether or not the bread turns into my actual body, the exact meaning of my death on the cross, whether gay people have the same rights as straight ones, or whether it makes any difference at all whether a woman ordains a priest or whether a man does it."

Jesus came, instead, to inaugurate a Kingdom...a new world order...an entirely different way of living that was based on love. A kingdom based on love would simply not concern itself with the kind of nonsense that seems to take up so much of the church's time around the world. A kingdom based on love would concern itself with feeding the hungry, freeing captives, and challenging the failed concepts of war. A kingdom based on love would show the world how to stop treating one another as consumers and customers, and to begin seeing one another as brothers and sisters. A kingdom based on love would cry 'stop!' to the madness of modern consumerism. A kingdom based on love would be so united in its concern for the Two Thirds of the World who are starving, that its voice could not be drowned out. A kingdom based on love would transform the way we do business into one which protects the earth, for the love of future generations.

So if you ask me for my opinion about all the arguments which whorl around the church all through the year, I will tell you...I don't really care - except in so far as I care about the hurt that the arguments cause to people I love. My focus is on how well we are doing, here in North End, as well as in the wider world, at ushering in God's Kingdom of Love. Nothing else matters.

So when Jesus says, in the parable of the seeds, that there are thorns which can choke the seed...thorns, as he says, of cares of the world and the lure of wealth...is it just possible that he is pointing at those in the church who have let the cares of sexual politics - a very worldly concern if there ever was one - and the lure of wealth, power and influence get in the way of enacting his true word? His "Word of the Kingdom" (Matt 13.19). His Word...'love'?

I'll leave it to you to decide.


  1. I do think you need to care about the arguments because they are deeply hurting people I love, probably more than you realise. This week I got, 'we have no problem with you Sarah so long as you preach the Bible'. What they meant was their interpretation of the Bible. It was a deliberate dig at my vicar who set up acceptingevangelicals. Some of the hateful comments on friends blogs who are pro women bishops has been appalling this last month. The comments he gets from Christians is worse. I'll be interested to see what you made of the wheat and the weeds this week. I am afraid I had a pop at the conservative Gafcon bishops who should go back to their bibles and stop trying to rip out the good wheat. How's the forehead, still made of flint I hope.

  2. Hi Sarah,
    Good to hear from you.

    I do, of course, care about the arguments that are rolling around the church (especially, as I said, because they are hurting people I love).

    Saying 'I don't care' was meant to be a rhetorical device to call people to focus on the heart of the Gospel, rather than secondary issues. It probably worked better in the preached version of the sermon!

    That said, I am quite happy to nail my colours to the mast of women's ministry, and to say that publicly that I'm in favour of women having equality at all levels of the church. I think Jesus sent a pretty powerful signal by enabling the Woman at the Well to be his first evangelist. Its a shame the rest of the church seems to have missed that story!

    You are so right about people who say "preach the Bible" meaning their version of it. Maddening isn't it?

    Much love to you all down there in the country!


  3. hi Tom,

    So glad to hear that the 'issue' (is there really one?) of women bishops isn't something that phases you and that you're in favour of equality in ministry. I wondered, are you equally as happy to "nail your colours to the mast" of gay ministry too?

    best regards,

  4. forgot to say...

    I had to concur with Sarah's comment that it IS important for us to care about issues like the "discussion" of women bishops and gay priests because people are hurt, on both sides, by some of the things that are said. But at the end of all the discussion, there comes a point where we MUST choose on what side of the debate we fall. The reason for this: if we wish our church, the Anglican church, to be as close as we can make it to God's Kingdom represented on earth, it should be a model of love. In making a decision about women bishops or gay clergy, we are enevitably saying something about who may preach God's love in his church.

    I wondered if the readers of your blog were familiar with this poem by Niemoller? it paints a very grim picture of what can happen when people don't take a stand when they know they really should;

    'First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up,
    because I wasn’t a Communist.
    Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up,
    because I wasn’t a Jew.
    Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up,
    because I was a Protestant. (See above)
    Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left
    to speak up for me. '

  5. Hi Russell,

    You've asked me to 'nail my colours to the mast' on the issue of gay ministers. You are right to do so - though I will confess to having been reticent thus far. (See a blog entry I made in 2006 at this link)

    However, since posting that particular comment, I've come to the view that I probably need to take Neimoller more seriously.

    I will therefore state publicly - here (and perhaps in a fuller blog-entry later this week, if I get the time) - that I think a minister (or indeed a Bishop) should be judged only on the quality of their ministry. "Is this man, or this woman, a competent pastor who shows God's love to the community?" That is, in my view, the only valid question that can really be asked of any minister.

    However, the whole topic of gay ministers is deeply clouded by the homophobia of so many people. My experiences in Africa and Eastern Europe have taught me that large parts of the world are simply not yet ready to accept the ministry of gay people - to the extent that those who support gay ministry are routinely murdered, or at the very least beaten and hounded from their homes. This is especially true in places where Islam and Christianity are in open conflict... and the inbuilt homophobia of some Islamic sects makes reconcilliation between such communities very difficult.

    I therefore think that the church as a whole is right to proceed with caution on this question.

    We must continue to preach the gospel of love, and to seek to change people's minds. Not least, we must ask the so-called 'Bible-based' Christians who insist on quoting proof-texts to support their homophobia to answer the following question:

    If the whole church now agrees that Leviticus 25:44-46 (on the topic of slavery) can be set aside in favour of treating former slaves as equal brothers and sister in Christ, why can't Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (on the topic of homosexuality) be treated in the same way?

    Some will argue that homosexuality is contrary to God's pattern for humanity, as exemplified in the story of Adam and Eve. But many pro-slavery proponents argued that the similarly foundational story of Cain and Abel gave them a mandate for slavery. If they have universally be accepted to be wrong, why not the proponants of Adam and Eve? It is at least a question which deserves serious thought from those who so blithly quote the bible to support their homophobia.

    But, as I say, change in this important area cannot come at the cost of putting individuals (and their innocent families) in real danger of losing their life and liberty. I may personally be prepared to risk my own life by arguing for totally inclusive ministry. But I have no right to place others in danger - especially those who will suffer violence in dark corners of the world because of what I, as a minister of the church, might espouse.

    Does that make sense?


  6. "My experiences in Africa and Eastern Europe have taught me that large parts of the world are simply not yet ready to accept the ministry of gay people..."

    The dilema we face in the discussion about homosexuality is as you say, that change may come "at the cost of putting individuals in real danger of losing their life and liberty." This dilema is not unfamiliar to Africans, just ask Morgan Tsvangari who decided to pull out of the run off elections in Zimbabwe because he felt too many people were being put in danger for his cause. It was a noble gesture, but also one that caused controversy and disillusionment on the side of those he had promised to represent. Many of those people were willing to put themselves in danger to see him elected President; did his decision to pull out stop the beatings and killings, or did it just prolong the agony of oppression? I wasn't there, I wasn't involved, so I don't know the answers, but the parallels with the notion that Gay ministry is OK, just not here and now because it's too fractious, can be drawn. The same argument was put forward about Women's ordination.

    Two very large and fundamental values are banging up against eachother here, Unity and Truth. It seems to be the default position of the Anglican church that maintaining Unity trumps almost every other value. I would suggest that 20 years after Issues in Human Sexuality was published is enough time for the debate to be concluded and for us to have decided on the relative importance of Unity vs Truth on this issue. If parts of the world are not ready to move on, maybe it is time to accept schism. If there was a section of the church that still believed that people with disability or sickness were, in fact, possessed by demons, would we not be happy to separate ourselves from such archaic beliefs?

    It would be a very sad day if the Anglican communion split in two, but sometimes the only way forward is to take to the courageous option, the right option.