Sign and Means of New Creation:
Public Worship and the Creative Reading of Scripture
Symposium on Worship, Calvin College
January 27 and 28, 2017
N T Wright, University of St Andrews
At the start of the First World War, the young Karl Barth was a parish minister in Safenwil in Switzerland. At this moment of crisis, Barth and his friend Eduard Thurneysen plunged deeply into the Bible, which they had begun to read not simply as a record of other people’s religious awareness but as a living word from God. The point that emerged with devastating clarity was what Barth sometimes spoke of as the ‘new world in the Bible’. I think he meant ‘new’ in two ways: it was new to him, but it was also the world of God’s new creation. It was a world where God was sovereign and called nations and individuals to account. If the Bible opens up a world which is the new creation accomplished by Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and now energised by the Spirit, there can be few tasks more important, for us as for Barth, than engaging appropriately with this book, challenging though that has always been.
Now obviously this must be done through study and teaching, through the preaching and pastoral work for which ministers are, supposedly at least, specially trained. But I have in mind today particularly the challenge of reading the Bible within public worship; and to contextualise that I want to say a few things first about public worship itself, public worship as the sign and the means of new creation. As I said earlier this week, the underlying problem of the world is not sin, but idolatry; not that sin doesn’t matter, but that sin is what happens because of the root cause, which is idolatry. When we worship the false gods of this world – the many gods and lords of which Paul spoke in First Corinthians – we hand over to them the power which is ours in virtue of our creation as image-bearing human beings, designed (according to Genesis and Psalm 8) to be set in authority over the whole world. False worship gives up that vocation and submits to slavery instead. And the Bible tells the story of Creation and New Creation, Exodus and New Exodus, the freeing of the slaves under Moses and the freeing of the world from its deepest slaveries through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It tells the story of the ultimate new creation. And when we worship the God of whom this story speaks – and retelling the story is central to that as I shall be explaining – then this worship, and this biblical storytelling, become both a sign and a means of that new creation.
It is a ‘sign’, in that this very act points forward. The story only makes sense if it is leading to that conclusion, to the renewal of creation. But it is also a ‘means’, because when this story is told, and when men and women are worshipping this God in this way, then they are as Paul says ‘renewed in knowledge according to the image of the creator’. The reason we can re-assume that status of image-bearers, of the ‘royal priesthood’, is because the forgiveness of our sins means that the grip of the Powers upon us is broken. Thus, when the church is being the church, and nowhere more than in scripture-focused worship, the church itself is also the sign and means of the manifold wisdom of God being made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. And, as Paul stresses in Romans 8, the renewal of human beings is God’s means towards the renewal of the whole creation. When, therefore, we worship the living God, using for that purpose the great story of scripture, we are celebrating in advance, and thereby materially contributing to, the ultimate new heavens and new earth. This is particularly and critically so in sacramental worship, where elements of the present creation are taken up to become foretastes of the world to come. But the burden of my song today is that this is especially the case with the use of scripture in worship. And this raises a problem to which the rest of this lecture is offered as a solution.
Here’s the problem. Our use of scripture in worship strikes me – to put it mildly – as impoverished. This is related to the other obvious problem about scripture in church life. Every church I know claims in some way or other to be based on scripture; to be in some sense ‘living under the authority of scripture’. But what does this actually look like? If we walked into a room and saw people living under the authority of scripture, what would we see going on? Without being cynical, it seems normally to mean some people quoting a few texts this way or that, or someone recalling what they learned in Seminary. Few clergy have the time, it seems, for serious and sustained Bible study of a sort that might freshly inform and undergird creative and formative ministry. Few laity have the tools even to start (though in America far more seem to make a stab at this than in the UK). And this wider problem is umbilically related to how we use scripture in worship. I believe that if we understood what it means to use scripture in worship, in worship that is both sign and means of new creation, we might thereby bring the Bible back into the life of the church as a rich, deep, positive presence, rather than an occasional and contested footnote.
What I now offer you is a set of proposals in this direction. I have three notes about the problem as I see it, four starting-points towards a fresh approach, five creative proposals and six classic examples. Obviously these will all be brief, and all could be expanded considerably.
Three notes about the problem
My first note is that the older I get the more I see the larger story of scripture as a whole: of the Gospels as wholes, of the Pentateuch as a whole, and so on. It’s then all the more frustrating when I realise that few churches see this; few in their worship consciously find themselves within this larger narrative. Instead it seems as though western Christianity as a whole lives within its own narrative, either the regular going-to-heaven narrative or the ‘Jesus-the-social-worker’ narrative, or something in between, rather than the full-on, full-blooded heaven-and-earth narrative of scripture. When I talk to individuals and groups I find that people are fascinated and excited by the larger scriptural narratives. They want to know more; but it’s not easy to see how to achieve this in church and study groups. The Bible is a large and complex collection of mostly large and complex books, and seeing it whole is difficult. At the same time, I have been rebuked this last year by watching my own grandchildren, at quite an early age, wrestling with the large issues of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, or with the seven Harry Potter books, and I realise that actually we humans are hard-wired, from an early age, not only to ‘get’ what a large and complex story is about but to be able to think through its characters and its plot, its twists and turns, with considerable sophistication. Why shouldn’t we do that with the Bible, starting as young as we can?
My second note about the problem is that this is partly practical – because within regular worship there’s not very much time to read very much scripture out loud – but more particularly theological. The Christian churches in general have always been subject to the temptation to use the Bible to annotate the story we want to tell for ourselves, rather than allow the Bible to tell its own story and invite us to join in. Instead of really grasping what it means that ‘the Messiah died for our sins and rose again according to the scriptures’ we have actually meant ‘the Messiah died and rose again according to our narrative of sin and salvation, for which we can find some biblical proof-texts’. Our theology has often been dualistic, rejecting the biblical heaven-and-earth interpenetration and then wondering why so much of the Bible has to be allegorized in order to fit with the story we want to tell; or it has been Marcionite, rejecting or distorting the Israel-focus of scripture. Then either the Old Testament falls off the back, or we effectively teach that the God of the Old Testament is different to the God of the New.
My third note is that when we therefore use scripture in little bits, cut off from their proper context and made to dance to our tunes instead, all sorts of doubts can creep in, like weeds among the wheat. Did Jesus really say this? Did Paul really mean that? Wasn’t this bit of teaching just a quirk of first-century culture which we can leave behind? If we reject Leviticus by not offering animal sacrifice any longer, why should we accept what it says about sexual behaviour? And so on. Our liturgical practice thus first reflects and then reinforces a sense both of holding scripture at arm’s length and then also of making it hard to hear what those individual snippets were actually all about in the first place.
In these three ways and many others I think it’s time for a fresh look at how we use the Bible in church: how we can ourselves, in planning and leading worship, make sure we are doing justice and honour to scripture itself, rather than simply using it within schemes of our own making. And I believe that every step we take in this direction will be a move towards making our worship more clearly and obviously the sign and means of new creation.
Four Starting Points towards a Fresh Approach
My first starting-point is that we need a fresh grasp, at least in outline, of how the larger story of scripture actually works. I have often seen eyes opening wide and jaws dropping when I have sketched, even briefly, the great sweep of scripture from Genesis to Revelation, from the creation of the garden with image-bearing and community-building humans to the garden city with humans as the royal priesthood. This framework is vital. We need that whole-Bible sweep if we’re to make proper sense of all the bits in between.
This applies especially to the four gospels. I have written elsewhere about the way in which in both popular and scholarly readings the gospels have tended to fall apart with Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom on the one hand and his going to the cross on the other. Western theology has found it hard to hold these together, and that problem is reflected both in academic discussions of the gospels and their traditions and in popular imaginings of Jesus the miracle-worker or social revolutionary on the one hand and Jesus the suffering saviour on the other. We have failed to realise that the four canonical gospels (as opposed to the non-canonical ones) see Jesus’ kingdom-work as completed on the cross and see the cross as the ultimate kingdom-bringing moment. The two are mutually defining, and of course the resurrection vindicates and validates that combination rather than one or other of the detached and distorted themes. (It is noticeable, though, that when people concentrate on the kingdom rather than the Cross they often downplay or deny the resurrection, and when people concentrate on cross rather than kingdom they reinterpret the resurrection in terms of ‘going to heaven’ rather than ‘new creation’.)
In particular – still within my first starting-point – we need to recapture the biblical temple-theology. Huge strides have been made in this area over the last generation or two by Jewish and Old Testament scholars, and New Testament scholars are at last catching up. Genesis 1 and 2 are about the construction of a temple, namely, the heaven-and-earth creation in which God wants to dwell, with humans as the ‘image’ in the temple. The first great narrative arc within the Pentateuch runs from there to Exodus 40 when the wilderness tabernacle is constructed and the divine presence comes to dwell in it. The tabernacle, and then the Temple in Jerusalem, are designed as a microcosmos, a little creation, a small working model of creation as a whole which functions as a signpost to YHWH’s intention to renew the whole world. The New Testament declares in a hundred different ways that this is precisely what’s happened in and through Jesus: Ephesians 1.10 declares that God’s plan from the start was to sum up all things in the Messiah, things in heaven and things on earth, and it goes on to explain that if Jesus is the heaven-and-earth person, the ultimate human microcosmos, then the church, indwelt by the spirit and uniting Jew and Gentile together, is the new Temple, the sign to the powers of the world that God is God and Jesus is Lord and that they are not. All of this big-picture biblical reading needs to be in place as the starting-point if the practical proposals I’m going to offer are to make the sense they ought to.
The second starting-point I propose is to reflect on how a big picture of scripture makes sense within public worship. My fear is that in most churches, including those who use a lectionary to help them move slowly but surely through quite a lot of scripture, the public reading of scripture on a Sunday morning has become perfunctory. We assume that more or less anyone can read in public and that they don’t need a lot of rehearsal or encouragement. Their names are put down on a rota and they turn up and do it. Of course, if the choir were to do that – just anybody turning up and singing without practising and direction – people would soon complain; but we’ve got used to poor reading, partly I think because we haven’t stopped to think what the public reading of scripture is for. Often it seems that it’s simply there as the text, or the pretext, for a sermon which may end up being about something quite different: a jumping-off point rather than the foundation for what the preacher wants to say. That’s not a good way to go. Actually, the public reading of scripture in the course of the church’s worship is not about ‘teaching’; it’s not there to impart information. It is part of the worship and praise of God; it is a way, a central way, a more central way even than the best hymns and worship songs, of praising God for his mighty acts. We rehearse the story of what God has done, not primarily to remind ourselves of it (though that happens as it’s done, of course), but so that we can acclaim and celebrate God’s mighty acts. We praise him for creation itself, and within creation for his acts through Israel and in Jesus and the Spirit in rescuing and renewing his world. You see this focused sharply in Revelation 4, where all creation praises God as the creator, and Revelation 5, where all creation praises God as the redeemer – with the human voices joining the non-human ones to add the word ‘because’ – we praise God because of who he is and what he’s done. And this sense of worshipping God by reciting his mighty acts belongs closely with the Temple-theology I just mentioned. We by the Spirit form the new Temple, and this new Temple is to be filled with the praise which is the sign of the Spirit’s presence. And that in turn is both sign and means of new creation. Recitation of scripture is the Christian equivalent of the pillar of cloud and fire in the desert, the very presence of the covenant God standing there with his people in awe and intimacy and leading them to their inheritance. This sense of the Spirit-filled, praise-filled community is the sign to the world – and to us as still part of that world – that one day the whole earth will be filled with the divine glory as the waters cover the sea. And, by celebrating Jesus’ lordship and renouncing the otherwise powerful idols, this worship becomes also a means towards that end. That is what our public worship ought to be saying. Those who join in with that worship ought to be able to sense that living rhythm, that longer vision, that larger horizon of promise.
All this depends on grasping the third of my four starting-points. Unless our services are to take a very long time indeed we choose short readings for our public worship. In my Anglican tradition the staple daily diet of Morning and Evening Prayer always includes two: one from the Old Testament, of course, and one from the New. Having that rhythm is important because it reminds us that our scripture readings are extracts from a narrative. If we just have one reading, whatever it is, we can easily imagine that it is just a piece of wisdom or learning which we meet straight on, rather than a part of the larger story into which we ourselves are caught up. The two or more readings make sure that in principle we are sensing that narrative movement, which opens up at least the chance that the worshippers will find themselves caught up in the story which then points on to the new creation. And this leads to the centre of this third starting-point: that our scripture readings, however short they are, are designed to function as small windows on the larger narrative. We may only be reading fifteen verses from First Kings, but like children pressing their noses against a small window high up in the house we find we can see, through that small window, the whole landscape, the distant mountains of Genesis and Isaiah, the fields and woods of Numbers and Nehemiah, the little streams of the minor prophets. We may only be reading from the New Testament one paragraph of Paul, but as we get close to that reading and look not only at it but through it we can see the entire sweep of Paul’s vision, of the biblical narrative focussed now on Jesus and his messianic death and resurrection. Of course, in order to be able to see these larger wholes we need to be acquainted with them; and of course, as we look through these windows we mustn’t neglect to look at them, to take stock of, and take delight in, the particular and specific things this particular passage has to teach. And one of the ways we do this – I am again thinking of the way the ancient daily offices are constructed – is to flank these readings, however large or small, with psalmody, with the Psalms themselves to which I shall come presently and with the poems and prayers of the New Testament and the early church, poems like the Magnificat and the Benedictus, or in many traditions the Te Deum and the Benedicite. These are in a sense obvious but I worry that many traditions, particularly the newer charismatic and free-church worship traditions, have never reflected on how liturgy actually works and particularly on how the liturgical reading of scripture actually works, what it’s there for. So they assume that it’s simply part of the teaching ministry, and therefore they content themselves with a perfunctory reading on Sunday morning and they hope that the mid-week Bible study will make up the deficiency. Well, I’d much rather people did at least read out part of the Bible on Sunday and go to some kind of Bible study mid-week. But there is so much more going on here; and the new generation badly needs it.
My fourth starting-point towards a fresh approach is to insist on some kind of lectio continua, both personally and publicly. There are, to be sure, many times and occasions when we need to choose special readings to suit a particular moment or challenge. But the church’s staple diet ought to be to work through the books of the Bible on a more or less continuous loop. There is an oddity about this, of course. Paul didn’t write Galatians expecting the church to read, or hear, the first ten verses one week and the next ten verses the next week, and so on. None of the biblical books was written with that kind of reading in mind, though the early church, following the example of the ancient Jewish lectionaries, found itself quite soon dividing the New Testament up like that. And this is particularly acute when it comes to the Gospels because again and again you only really get the point of a particular story when you see it in its larger context. Lectio Continua does give you the chance of that, for all its problems.
There then are my four starting points. Let me now move to five creative proposals: and, as I do, let me say a word about translations. Because of my professional work I naturally normally read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, but I know very well that many even of those who want to do this really can’t. You need to start young, ideally, and many just didn’t have or didn’t take that opportunity. But if you don’t have the original languages you need to read, regularly, from more than one modern translation; preferably from two or three at least, and in quite different idioms. It’s hard for me to comment on particular translations because they are all, including my own Kingdom New Testament, a mixed bag, with some bits that ‘work’ better than others. Translation is not an exact science at the best of times, and translating scripture, though a wonderful challenge, is also frustrating as the rich meanings seldom if ever come through unscathed. In the mercy of God, however, Christianity has been a translating religion from the first, with the New Testament written in Greek not Aramaic, and the gift of tongues symbolizing God’s desire that comprehensible praise should arise from every language under heaven.
Five Creative Proposals
As I launch into five creative proposals let me say that all this could work really well ecumenically. We all know we ought to get together with Christians of other traditions but we’re all so busy we’re not quite sure how to do it. The Bible is one of the great ecumenical instruments and we should seek out ways, whether in ministers’ meetings or in house-groups, for studying the bible together across our various traditions. You learn far more from and with one another when you do it together. That thought could be developed further but not here.
My first proposal is obvious but it needs saying. We need whole-book readings and whole-Bible readings. How are you going to do that? We need to encourage one another that, in addition to whatever Bible-reading scheme we use for our daily devotions (and if we’re not doing daily Bible reading we should start at once), we should take time, perhaps once a week or once a month, to set aside an hour or two and read right through a book at a sitting. That is what they were designed for, after all. And actually with some of the harder books – I think of Leviticus as an obvious example – it’s much easier to read them straight through at a run. If you do half a chapter a day it’ll take you a couple of weeks just to get through the daily sacrifices and unless you are a real geek for that stuff you will get bored; whereas to read the whole thing through at a run is to realise that the book works like a song, with the rhythms and repetitions coming round in an almost incancatory fashion. I had a friend whose spiritual director once advised him to read Romans every day for a month. What, he said, a chapter a day? No, said the director: the whole book, every day. And so he did – coming home from work, getting a cup of tea, sitting down and reading Romans one more time. He said it was a life-changing month. But most Christians, including highly intelligent Christians, have not only never done that, they’ve never even thought of doing that, or anything like it. What an impoverishment.
When it comes to the whole Bible, I believe we should not only be reading right through the Bible individually at least once a year – for clergy I’d say twice a year at least, and perhaps the gospels four times a year, and if this means reworking your personal schedules then fine, do it – but that we should make it possible for our congregations to try creative experiments for how to experience the whole Bible. I know some churches and some Cathedrals that have done sponsored whole-bible readings, on a 24/7 basis, with people signing up to do the 3 am slot on Numbers or the midnight ride through Revelation. If the church is open and people are invited in to hear, well of course that makes sense and you never know what will come as a result, as people are suddenly struck by this or that passage or indeed by the larger sense of narrative flowing through it all. And whatever we do down these lines we ought also to have proper follow-up in terms of seminars or discussion groups, to enable people to catch the fleeting impressions and, not least, to pray them in, to turn curiosity into learning, learning into prayer, and prayer into the fabric of our lives. I would love to see Isaiah 40 to 55 done like that, or the book of Revelation. What a challenge.
My second creative proposal is for actual performance of individual books or long passages. This can be spectacular. The actor Alec McCown famously put on Mark’s gospel, from the King James Version, night after night in London’s West End, with a minimal staging and props, and people came and found it utterly compelling. I have seen the actor Paul Alexander do John in the same way, and you’ll never read John the same after living through it like that for a couple of hours. I once saw a New Testament scholar who was also an actor doing Galatians, at a conference of Bible Scholars, and when the scholars came back to a seminar-style discussion of the letter immediately afterwards we had a whole different angle on the entire text. Most congregations have one or two or more actors who would probably love to be asked to do that, perhaps on a Sunday evening as part of an alternative worship service. In my experience it’s probably better with just one or at most two voices, otherwise it becomes more of a staged play – though that can be brilliant as well, but it’s of course much harder and more time-consuming to do and demands all kinds of extra production elements. But the important thing is for people to experience whole books of the Bible as wholes, to be shaped by them so that when they come back to read particular parts they will be returning to an old friend for a particular conversation. And this, even if it’s not in a church and not on a Sunday, is bound to be an act of worship, of praising God for his great story; an act of worship which points once more towards new creation.
There is a particular variation on this kind of performance which can be very powerful. In my tradition some churches and cathedrals on Palm Sunday sing the entire Passion Narrative from one of the gospels. This takes the place of both the gospel reading and the sermon. I have known people who, when they discover that there isn’t going to be a sermon, are shocked; but then, when they have lived through the whole story in a simple musical setting, they realise. This is more powerful than any sermon. We are now part of the story. That is what music can do.
My third creative proposal is quite simply for Lectio Divina. This is the practice, whether individually or in smallish groups, for spending prayerful time with a particular passage. There are many ways of doing it but one simple one is that, in the course of morning or evening prayer, one should pause for several minutes – say, five or ten – after each reading; then perhaps go round the group and each person say one short thing that has struck them; then read it again, and again a time of silence and again a short comment from everyone; then read it again (and it might help if the different readings were from different translations), and this time have a free-for-all about what you as a group are hearing. You can of course do this by yourself but it’s exciting and challenging to do it together. When I was Bishop of Durham we did this every month as we began an all-day staff meeting; and again and again we found that our sitting silently, and then sharing what we were hearing, shaped our discussions on all sorts of matters during the rest of the day. There are many ways of inhabiting that ancient tradition of Lectio Divina; I have described one, but there are others, and of course there are no strict rules, only good practice, and each group will find that out by trial and error. The important thing is that symbolically and practically what this says is that we are trying to be still before the word of God, to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church and to ourselves, and not least to listen for what the Spirit may be saying through one another. And in all this we are embodying and celebrating in advance the new creation to which scripture points and which the Spirit brings into reality.
My fourth creative proposal comes from an enterprising church in Durham. In 2010 we had a Lenten project, ecumenically, across the whole of the north-east of England. We called it the Big Read, where churches and small groups right across the region got together to read Luke, which was the gospel in the lectionary that year. One church had the brilliant idea that instead of inserting long passages of Luke into the liturgy at the weekly Eucharist they would insert the weekly Eucharist into Luke. The first Sunday in Lent they began the service by reading the opening of Luke, then singing the first hymn, then reading the next passage, then doing the confession and absolution, and so on. They worked it all out so that it covered Lent and arrived at Holy Week as Luke arrived at the cross – and then of course did Easter with Luke 24 as the framework. Their testimony was that it worked like a charm – that all sorts of things fitted together helpfully, with great resonances this way and that from the text into the liturgy and vice versa. I suspect that all those who worshipped through those services will never forget it, and that whenever they read Luke they will have been permanently transformed in their reading by that experience. Now imagine extrapolating from that up into other possibilities. The sky’s the limit . . . or perhaps I should say the new creation, to which this obviously points.
My fourth creative proposal concerns the sermon. Once you realise that the readings in the liturgy are a small window on the larger biblical story, it ought to be natural to draw that out in the sermon. Faced with any biblical passage, a careful preacher will often go looking for particular points of theological detail or pastoral application. Commentaries will often steer you in that direction. But again and again the passages we read are themselves opening up and pointing to larger themes. Obviously if you preach about the larger themes all the time the congregation might get tired of hearing the same big picture week after week – though to be honest the big picture has so many fascinating details, so many twists and turns, that it would be quite a few weeks before you were in any danger of repeating yourself. But my sense is that most congregations in the western church – and for all I know in other churches as well – simply don’t know the big story, and left to themselves they will flick back into the natural default position of thinking that the whole Bible is about how to believe in Jesus so you can go to heaven. They will need constant reinforcement of the larger scriptural story if that is to become the new default mode. We need to be soaked in the story if we are to become wise worshipping Christians for the next generation and beyond; if, in particular, we are to worship in a way which is both sign and means of new creation.
All this leads me to my final point, the six classic examples of what I’m talking about.
Six Classic Examples
I choose my examples almost at random and there could have been literally dozens of others. I begin with Psalm 2. It’s well known both in itself and in its fresh uses in the New Testament. You know it well, I hope: the nations rage and threaten, but God laughs and declares that he has established his king on Zion. Then the king himself speaks, declaring that God had established in a decree that ‘You are my son; this day I have begotten you; ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the world for your possession’. The king will establish his rule over the whole world, and the nations will be humbled and have to learn wisdom by submitting to his rule. Now this Psalm obviously goes with several others, like 72, in which the coming rule of God’s chosen king will bring a new situation to birth in the world as a whole. But it might be all too easy to focus simply on the Christological application – what it means to say that these words were spoken to Jesus himself. A high Christology – there we are, job done, sermon complete. Or one could imagine a pastoral homily in which these words are spoken to each of us at our baptism: you are my beloved child, and I have a glorious inheritance for you. Great sermon in its way; but the Psalm looks so much wider. In this Psalm, as we press our noses up against it, we see the story of Genesis: here are the nations raging and eventually building the tower of Babel, but God laughs and calls Abraham and promises him a worldwide inheritance. Or we look through this window in the other direction and we see Israel in exile, clinging to hope despite the oppression of the nations. Or we look again, with the disciples in Acts 4, and we see the early church invoking this Psalm to explain the meaning of the cross, that when the world’s rulers did their worst God raised Jesus and exalted him to be ruler of all. We look outward to the church’s political task: Now therefore, you kings, be wise! The church, those to whom in Christ God says ‘you are my child, and the world is your inheritance’, have the God-given responsibility to speak that truth to power and to remind the nations, as Jesus reminded Pilate, where their limited authority comes from and how that responsibility is to be exercised. Plenty there to occupy several sermons, to help people worship by reading or singing that Psalm and looking through it at the larger biblical picture, and so celebrating that larger picture and the God of whom it speaks.
My second example is another Psalm, or rather a pair of Psalms: 105 and 106. These Psalms tell the story of Israel . . . from two very different angles. Some of you may recall that about 30 years ago there was a movie made of Charles Dickens’s book Little Dorritt. Actually it was two movies, and you had to go on successive nights to the two showings. And here’s the thing: the first movie covered the whole plot, but from the angle of the heroine; you saw her scenes, you went with her when she left the room, and so on. Then the second movie covered the whole of the same plot but from the angle of the hero. Some of the scenes were identical but then we were taken back with the hero to see what was happening to him at the same time. It was a wonderfully bifocal experience. Well, Psalms 105 and 106 are a bit like that, and together they provide the clue to what is sometimes misleadingly called ‘salvation history’. Psalm 105 tells the story of Israel as a success: God calls Israel, rescues her from Egypt, takes her home to the Promised Land so she can obey his laws. Result! But Psalm 106 tells the same story from the other point of view. Israel rebels, twists and turns and tries to do anything but go the way her rescuing God wants. Things go from bad to worse; utter disaster threatens; but time and again God finds a way to rescue the situation and to start up again, whereupon they go ahead and worship idols once more. And so on. Now it’s unlikely that with quite long psalms like these the congregation is going to sing them both, but that’s a pity because we need them both. We need them both to understand the story of Israel in its two-sided puzzlement; and we need them both to understand the story of the church, which even though it’s on the nearer side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and even though we are promised and given the Spirit, will still get it wrong again and again. Psalm 106 warns against triumphalism; Psalm 105 against despair; and we need them both, and in proper balance. Together they form the darkly textured story of God and Israel and we rightly worship God by holding them together.
Moving to the New Testament, my third example is the collection of worship songs in Revelation 4 and 5. These are some of the most glorious poems in the Bible, and they illustrate perfectly the point I’m making: that through poetry the biblical writers enable us to glimpse in a vivid little frame the entire narrative of creation and covenant. Revelation 4 has the non-human creation praising God, and the humans (if that’s what they are) joining in with an explanation: God is worthy to be praised because he created all things. Then Revelation 5 begins with the challenge: who can open the seal? Nobody, it seems: all humans have failed to be image-bearers. But the Lion of Judah, who is also the Lamb, has conquered: he is the true image-bearer, the one through whom God’s plan of salvation can now go forward. So the new song arises: he, the Lamb, is worthy of all praise, because by his blood he ransomed humans for God, to make them kings and priests upon the earth. Here in these two chapters we have the entire story from Genesis to Revelation, focused on Jesus and opening up with a welcome for all and sundry, sinners though we be; and the welcome is not into ‘heaven’ – the chapters have often been misread as though that’s what it was about – but into the new vocation, the Israel-vocation, the challenge to be the royal priesthood, the redeemed human family through whom God will bring about his new creation.
My fourth passage is Colossians 1.15-20. Once again early Christian poetry is brilliant in drawing together strands of biblical thought and weaving a dense and complex tapestry as a song of praise. Indeed this poem symbolizes for me everything I’ve been talking about: one small gem which we can look at to see a distilled statement of who Jesus is and who we are in him, and which we can look through to see the whole story from Genesis to Revelation. I won’t take time just now to explain it in detail, since I’ve done that in various places in my writings. Just to say that here we have one of two Pauline examples of a fascinating phenomenon: that it really looks as though the earliest Christology was accomplished in poetry, and that the discursive theological statements had to come later. It is as though what had just happened in Jesus was so rich that only poetry would do; and perhaps that tells us something about theology and worship. Paul here takes themes from Genesis 1, from Proverbs 8, and from many other biblical sources, and turns them into a song of praise. Augustine said that to sing was to pray twice, and if you were to sing this passage you would be praising three times, once because the poem as it stands is a hymn of praise to Jesus himself, the image, the head, the firstborn, the firstfruits, the redeemer, second because singing brings your whole body into play so you, as a temple of the Spirit, are resonating with this act of praise, but third—and this is my main point here—because as you pray this poem you are actually reciting the whole of God’s mighty acts from beginning to end with Jesus in the middle, an effective sign and means of new creation. This is Christian worship at one of its highest early points.
The fifth example is the other obvious Pauline one: Philippians 2.6-11. This is an extraordinary poem, simple in structure with the two halves meeting in the middle in the little phrase thanatou de staurou, the death of the cross. And here again the whole story is present before us in these short poetic stanzas which so far as we know predate any detailed formulation of the extraordinary doctrine which they embody. Poetry first, then theology; worship first, then thinking in the light of that which is why Paul says ‘Have this mind among you which is yours in the Messiah Jesus . . .’ – in other words, take this poem and use it to reshape your thinking. Take this act of worship and use it to pray your way into the mind of the Messiah, in which humility and wisdom and unity and love are stitched together so tightly. Here we have the great biblical story again but this time seen with special reference to Isaiah, to the promise of the Servant through whose ministry God will be glorified – only now the God who will not share his glory with another has shared it with Jesus. Once again we can press our noses up against this tiny but complete example of early Christian poetry and through it we can see clearly the whole sweep of the narrative, from the rebellion of Adam to the restoration of creation under Jesus’ lordship. This is a small but powerful example of how reading scripture means both praising God for his mighty acts and retelling, through one small sample, the whole story of those saving events.
My sixth and final example is, as you may have guessed, the Prologue to John’s Gospel. This again is the story of Genesis and Exodus told eschatologically, that is, told so that the narrative reaches forward into the promised future and declares that it has arrived in Jesus. Not for nothing is this passage read – though sadly often stopping at verse 14 – in Christmas Carol services. Not for nothing, in some Catholic traditions, is this passage prayed as a prayer by the celebrant after the administration of the bread and the wine. The word became flesh and tabernacled in our midst, and we gazed upon his glory . .. ‘ : there really isn’t much more to be said. Genesis begins with the creation ‘in the beginning’, the creation of the heaven-and-earth reality of God’s whole world where God wanted to dwell, to ‘take his rest’. The rebellion of the image-bearing humans hasn’t thwarted that desire and design, but has merely determined the shape and the specific content of that intention. Exodus 40 describes the new creation in the form of the wilderness Tabernacle into which the divine glory will come as the sign that God’s glory will one day fill the whole of creation. Yes, says John, the Word is the true tabernacle – the normal translation of ‘dwelt among us’ hides the more precise meaning of the Greek, which is that the Word became flesh and ‘pitched his tent’ in our midst, with the verb eskenosen using the root skene which is, remarkably, the same word etymologically as the later Hebrew term for the indwelling glorious divine presence, the Shekinah. Etymology doesn’t solve all problems but it certainly helps here. We gazed, says John, upon the divine glory as we were looking at Jesus, at the word made flesh. And we deduced that, though nobody has ever actually seen God, the only-begotten God who is by the father’s heart – he has made him known. Once again, a small poetic passage through which we can see the full sweep of the biblical revelation. When you read or pray John 1 you are reading and praying the whole story of creation and covenant, of creation to new creation, of revelation and redemption; and you are doing so in an act of praise, celebrating God’s mighty acts in this miniature but majestic paragraph. Using this passage in worship catches us up within God’s story and points ahead unerringly to the ultimate new creation.
I hope you see the point, and I don’t need to labour it further. I simply wanted to hold out before you this morning the possibility of seeing the public reading of scripture in fresh ways, and to urge you to use every opportunity to teach this way of reading and understanding scripture to those in your care. We live in turbulent times – as of course did many of the biblical writers. And if in these times we can draw in fresh ways upon the insights and liturgical wisdom which are hidden deep within this old book there is at least a chance, in the mercy of God, that we will train up the next generation to think and pray and act in the church and the world with the wisdom that is shaped by the entire biblical gospel.
There are of course many other points one could make. I look forward to your questions. But for me the focus remains on worship. Worship of the God revealed in Jesus Christ is what makes us human; it renews us in our image-bearing vocation. It points ahead to God’s new world, and summons us to play our parts within that purpose. And if worship is to do all this it is vital that we use the book God has given us. Scripture, after all, is not simply there to provide us with true information about God, the gospel, and the world. It is there to be the central focus and vehicle of Christian worship, to provide fuel for the sacrificial flame which burns in our hearts, to bring us into the true Temple; to point ahead to God’s new world and, by anticipating that new world in the present, actually to contribute by the Spirit to its effective realization. The Bible comes to us from God’s mighty acts in the past and points powerfully forward to God’s mighty purposes for the future. In worship, we are refreshing our roots in that past in order to bear fruit for that future.