Trying to plan a service with a colleague for a somewhat unusual occasion has made me ask some difficult questions about the place of the Bible in Christian worship.
In thinking about the sermon, we knew what we wanted to say, and we had no doubt that it was close to the heart of the Christian message. The problem came when we started looking for a New Testament reading. Every passage we thought of seemed to be a poor fit. It contained an inspiring phrase or sentence that was right on message, but when we came to read the surrounding verses we thought, ‘No, that’s not quite suitable’. In its context it was not quite saying the kind of thing we wanted to say. In some cases there was a bit of doctrinal baggage or a bit of historical background that would have to be unpacked and possibly explained to people in the kind of congregation we were expecting, and this would be a distraction from the main point of the service.This of course prompts the question: if we can’t find a place in the Bible that plainly declares this message, is it because the message is not actually biblical at all? Are we trying to make the Bible say something it doesn’t say, or trying desperately to convince ourselves that our message is the Bible’s message?
This is of course not necessarily so. If we really believe that our message is true to the spirit of the Bible, or, more important, to the spirit of Christ who is the true Word, does it matter that there is no place in the Bible that spells it out in exactly the same way as we would?We surely have a good precedent in the way the New Testament writers treated the Hebrew Scriptures. They quoted them frequently, and usually way out of context. The most extreme example of this is the way they sometimes took the Septuagint’s expression ‘the Lord’ (a translation of the divine Name itself) as referring to ‘the Lord’ Jesus. Because they saw Jesus as the fulfilment and the real meaning of all the Scriptures they had no hesitation in assuming that, whatever the context and whatever the original writer’s intention, they could draw on any passage in the Bible to back up what they believed about Jesus.
But perhaps there is a difference. In the Christian Church today, and for many centuries past, there is a tradition of reading a passage of Scripture as the ‘lesson’ for the day and then preaching on it. The sermon is meant to be an exposition of the Bible passage, and, as the old saying goes, ‘a text without its context is a pretext’. Honesty demands that we take seriously what the text means before we start asking what its relevance may be for us today.However, when we look at the preaching of the early disciples, especially as we see it in the book of Acts, this was not the style at all. In most of their public proclamation of the gospel, they did not read a Bible passage and then expound it. They preached their message and backed it up with any snippets of Scripture that occurred to them. It is our tradition of formal worship that demands that there should be a ‘reading’ as well as a ‘sermon’ in every service, and that the two should be closely related.
Perhaps we should recognise more clearly that there are two kinds of sermon, and be more honest about both of them. There is the expository sermon, when we take careful note of what the Bible actually says and wrestle with its meaning for us today. Then there is the topical or situational sermon, when it is a current situation or concern that sets the agenda. In this kind of sermon we still try to be true to the Christian message in spirit, but are free to use any part of the Bible, even if only a striking phrase here and there, as back-up and illustration. With this kind of sermon there really doesn’t need to be a ‘reading’ as such. And even if there is one it need not necessarily be from the Bible.