Monday, 30 January 2012

But only

St Johns (our church) is, as we say in England, rather high up the candle. Though it is part of the Church of England rather than Roman Catholic, it describes itself as British (or English) Catholic – ie it models itself on pre-Reformation thinking.  Personally I wish we could go back even further to pre Council of Whitby and join up with our Celtic roots, but that’s another matter.  Anyway we have a lots of robes and incense and candles and all that jazz, and as part of our preparation for the Eucharist we include, as Roman Catholics also do, the congregational prayer based on Luke 7:7 or Matthew 8:8: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

As I prayed this prayer yesterday, I noticed its ambiguity. “But only” could mean two similar but different things.  It could mean: I am not worthy to receive you, yet/even so/however simply speak the word and I shall be healed.  Or it could mean: I am not worthy to receive you, just simply speak the word and I shall be healed.

The first meaning suggests a certain inner distress or turmoil to be overcome, ie I am dismayed and embarrassed to find myself in a condition unfit to receive you – HOWEVER if you will say the word, I shall be healed.  The second meaning suggests a more tranquil seeing, accepting of one’s inner state, ie As I am clearly unfit to receive you I rely on your transformative grace, all you have to do is say the word and I shall be healed.  See?  There’s a difference.

This ‘but only’ is there in the translations of the Bible we read, and in effect we are all reading different Bibles because we are all constantly making assumptions about what we hear/read, not always realising that others are reading/hearing it quite differently.

A good example of this is the text where Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father but by me”.
Most preachers I have heard speak on this interpret it to mean in effect “I am the bottle-neck of Heaven.  If you don’t subscribe to the Christian creeds, you won’t get in”. 
Personally, I think it means something different.  I think it means “I personify everything that is good, everything that is true, and what it is to be fully human.  All people committed to goodness and truth, all who are open to life and love, are travelling my way and part of my family”.

Then there is the story of the Prodigal Son, the bit at the end where the older son is jealous and the father says he could have a party any time he wanted to.  No-one seems to preach on this, but I think it’s a story about the two ways we fall off the tightrope of walking in Providence.  Some people err in being too profligate and wasteful – much as the human race has taken the precious gift of the earth and squandered it in filthy over-industrialisation and commercial greed, like the Prodigal Son with his orgies and prostitutes until he is reduced to the unimaginably unclean (to a Jew) state of sharing his home with pigs and envying their table.  But some people err in the other direction, by failing to see the abundance inherent in their situation, failing to trust the providence of the Father, living their lives in parsimony and scarcity when it was meant to be a party.

I wonder even if there is a need for us to quarrel as we tend to do, over biblical interpretations.  They seem to me inherently ambiguous, and I wonder if that isn’t part of the Bible’s nature as a living book.  It’s as we engage with it, look deeply into it, that we see depth upon depth, catch a glimpse of jewels winking in a new shaft of light when we had never noticed them before.

What I think is theologically dangerous is when people actually tweak the text to make it fit the preconception. I once saw this actually, literally, set in stone.  I lived for a while in Aylesbury, and as I was still then a Methodist minister I preached on the Aylesbury Circuit every Sunday.  This included occasionally taking a service out at a designed village.  A farmer had leased all his land for building (but kept the ground rents; good move!) houses.  So a large estate had been built, with a centre including shops, a doctor’s surgery and a church to be shared by all the denominations.  On the outside wall of the church a large circle of stone was to display a biblical text.  The text they went for – brilliant, inspirational, if only they’d actually done it, was based on 1 John 4, verse 7 – Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God and verse 16 – God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God.  It’s the Ubi caritas (Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est) But, worried about losing the monopoly on soul-health, they twisted it round so that it said not Where love is, there is God, but Where God is, there is love.  They switched the biblical wording around to make it say what the Bible does not say but many (most, even) Christians believe (and think it ought to say), that salvation is a commodity to be obtained by acquiescing and adhering to our formalised doctrines.  This is not what Jesus said.  According to Him, you can say “Lord, Lord” till you’re blue in the face  (Matthew 7:22, Luke 6:46) – it’s if your life is characterised by kindness and compassion that is the mark of your allegiance. “By this” (nothing else) “shall everyone know that you are my disciples; that you love one another.” (John 13:35)


365 Day 30 (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, see here)

I used to be a Methodist minister, pastor of (simultaneously) six churches.  I had a terror of arriving somewhere to preach or take a funeral/wedding only to find I’d left my glasses at home.  So I had innumerable pairs of cheap non-prescription reading glasses scattered about – in pulpits, in my bags, in the car, in the pocket of my robes – so that this could NEVER HAPPEN. And I don’t need them anymore.


Ganeida said...

I have a terrible propensity for meddling but when I am in my sanest & rightest mind I know there is one thing & one thing only: to keep my eyes upon Jesus & just worry about how He is leading me. Everything else is so much froth & bubble & He will sort it out. Besides, it seems I don't choose my friends for similarity of beliefs but rather dissimilarities, just to keep the pot stirred! ☺

Roberta said...

Ember, Thanks for your thought-full
comments on Biblical texts. When I read your first example, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you....", I decided I had to write you about the mandated changes to the congregations responses during the RCC Mass. The response before receiving communion is now, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak the word only and I shall be healed". There are many, many other changes that have, in my hearing, pretty well silenced the Mass-goers who have difficulty making the enforced changes...not to mention the incomprehensible changes to the Celebrant's prayers.

Ember said...


Thanks for your good thoughts, friends! xx

Donna said...

Amen. It's as if you've been listening to my thoughts.
I thought for a long time that I could never be a Bible-based Christian because I couldn't accept so many Biblical concepts. And I've been discovering, one by one, that the concepts I have trouble with tend to be the ones invented by modern people who have (in my view) completely missed the point of what the Bible was meant to say.
And then there are those "Biblical" sayings that turn out to be by some seventeeth century poet, but which have been bandied about so much people assume they must be (literally) gospel.
If only you were a minister today, Ember, there may be a church for me to join after all!

Ember said...

I came to like the Quaker use of the word "ministry" - which applies to any contribution any person makes to any meeting.
I came to a place where I felt more and more strongly that the best kind of group is like a circle - everyone equidistant from the centre: not like a pyramid with one VIP at the top, or like a classroom with one Fathead at the front and rows of Emptyheads facing forward.
I also loved John Wimber's story of how, after his conversion, he came to church for a while, then (having been reading the Gospels and the Book of Acts) he showed up at church one Sunday morning and discreetly asked the deacon: "When do we get to do the stuff?" Bewildered, the deacon responded, "What stuff?"
And Wimber replied. "You know, the stuff! The stuff in this book! The stuff in the Bible!"
How bitter was his disappointment when he heard that at church he would learn about it, hear about it, they would preach about it and pray about it - but they didn't actually *do* it any more.

Hawthorne said...

Hi Ember. *waves* Never thought about that prayer before - thanks for making me think! And thank you, thank you, thank you for putting into words how I also felt about Jesus being the way, the truth and the life. x x

Ember said...


Jules said...

really good thoughts! I really enjoy reading your blog and hope to make it to England someday!

Ember said...

:0) I hope you do! x

Jodi said...

I think you would appreciate "The Prodigal God" by Timothy Keller. Someone IS preaching about the older brother too.

Ember said...