THE DAY OF PENTECOST: WHITSUNDAY — 23 May 2010
Christ Church, Burlington — 8:00 & 10:00 a.m.
Acts 2:1-21 | Ps 104:25-35,37 | Romans 8:14-17 | John 14:8-17,25-27
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” [John 14:26]
Notice what Jesus promises his followers: the Holy Spirit to teach them. He does not promise them the Bible.
Jesus did not have a Bible. The first hundred years or so of the Christian Church did not have a Bible. Oh, of course they had the Jewish Scriptures — plural — because the only form in which they knew them was a multiplicity of scrolls.
Jesus and the first Christian generations knew the Scriptures, but they were not yet a “Bible.” There was actually a pretty solid consensus about what writings were to be counted as “Scripture,” including the Torah, the history books, the Prophets, and the Psalms — there was still some dispute about some of the others — but “Bible” was not quite yet a single hammer with which to pound people on the head. (Although “it is written” got used for a certain amount of smacking around, to which Jesus often replied, “Yes, but I say to you…”) And although the various writings that we call the New Testament were in the process of composition, and some of them were becoming widely known, they were not universally recognized as “Holy Scripture” and in fact some were still not accepted for quite a long time.
In fact, apparently many early Christian congregations functioned reasonably well without a “Bible” at all. In the later second century, St. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons in what is now France, tells about “barbarian” churches who had salvation without written scriptures because they had the Apostolic tradition of the rule of faith. Irenaeus seems to be referring to Gallican rural churches around Lyons whose people did not read or speak Greek, and there was no Imperial Bible Society to translate the scriptures into Gallic, their Celtic tongue.
Now, I am not in any way trying to disparage the importance or the authority of Holy Scripture. I steadfastly affirm the ordination pledge from the Prayer Book: “I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” But we need to understand — as I think many so-called “evangelicals,” within the Anglican tradition as well as beyond, do not understand — that the Bible did not create the Church, the Church created the Bible. That is not to deny that the Bible may stand in judgment on the Church, and indeed often does. The New Testament writings are the authoritative witness to the original Apostolic tradition, and through them God the Holy Spirit constantly moves to renew us and recall us to our genuinely evangelical roots. But the Church of Jesus Christ is founded not on the Bible but on Jesus Christ, who committed the mission of the proclamation and enactment of the good news of the Reign of God to a community of followers empowered by his Holy Spirit with the promise that the Spirit would continue to lead them into all truth.
But being led by the Holy Spirit into all truth can be Very Very Hard. For two reasons: one is moral and spiritual: the simple fact is that we really don’t want to be led by the Holy Spirit into all truth, what we want is ratification of the validity of our own prejudices and preferences. So one reason why being led by the Holy Spirit is hard is because it means we have to recognize and surrender our precious Pride.
The other reason is a little less spiritual and a little more cognitive: it is sometimes just hard to tell what is really true. The evidence and the indications are often confusing and contradictory — not least from Scripture itself. I have never really understood the Biblical-literalist mind. (I’m staying away here from the term “fundamentalist,” which I think is not really very helpful.) These folks who make such a big deal of the inerrancy of the Bible — have they never read the text? But I digress.
My point is that the Scriptures are full of contradictions and inconsistencies. Does that mean that these writings are worthless, deceitful, untrustworthy? No! Of course not! But it does mean their contradictions and inconsistencies are aspects of them that has to be incorporated into their interpretation. And even in some of the most appalling stories from the early history of God’s People Israel, the Holy Spirit may have a word for us.
And then on top of that there is Christian history. I referred earlier, along with St. Irenaeus, to the Apostolic tradition. But the Apostolic tradition is no nice and tidy piece of work either. Roman Catholics have an infallible Pope, and conservative evangelicals have an infallible Bible. Anglicans like to say we have an infallible Early Church, but it’s just not that simple!
And being led by the Holy Spirit into all truth has to do in part with sorting all this out. It takes a lot of patience. It takes a lot of humility. It takes a lot of tolerance for the possibility that I may be mistaken. (And it’s not so bad to be mistaken, as long as we stay open and keep listening, keep thinking, keep praying. The Holy Spirit will eventually bring us around, though perhaps not quite on our schedule.)
It also takes a lot of willingness to be thoughtful. I don’t mean that one has to run off and get an advanced degree in Biblical Studies. Formal academic study of the Bible is a good thing, on the whole, I think, and I encourage you to do it if you are led in that direction, but frankly the evidence suggests that the Holy Spirit is not more likely to be heard in the ivy-covered halls of a university or seminary than in an ordinary parish Bible study group. But just because one isn’t academically trained in biblical hermeneutics doesn’t mean one has to be simple-minded about the Scriptures. A lot of it is actually a matter of common sense. If you are halfway adept at interpreting human life and human experience, it will take you a long way in interpreting the Scriptural witness. And the Scriptures are a witness to the acts of God in the human world, not in some religious fantasyland. (“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” after all.)
It is often said that Christianity is a “religion of the Book,” along with Judaism and Islam. But I think it really isn’t, at least not in the first instance. Our faith is not based on a Book, but on a Person.
(Islam probably really is a religion of the Book, the Qur’an. Judaism became something of a religion of the Book, the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh, and secondarily the Talmud, but originally it was a religion of History: God’s choice and redemption of the people Israel.)
We know this Person on whom our faith is based — Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, the Incarnate Word — primarily through our foundational and authoritative written witness, through the memory and experience of the Christian community through the years, but also more directly, through the Holy Spirit whom Christ sends from the Father to be with us and in us, to breathe the divine life into us and draw us into God’s eternal love. It is this gift that we celebrate on this Day of Pentecost.