All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 7 December 2014

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 7 December 2014

Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie

Three texts, one from this evening’s first lesson,  the second from later in the chapter, and the third from the second lesson:

First, words of King Ahab:

‘I hate him, for he never prophesies anything good about me.’

Then, words about King Ahab:

So … they buried the king in Samaria. They washed the chariot by the pool of Samaria; the dogs licked up his blood, and the prostitutes washed themselves in it, according to the word of the Lord.

And, from St Paul to the Romans:

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

If we’d read that improving tale about Ahab at Mass, someone would even have added: ‘This is the word of the Lord’, and we’d all have replied ‘thanks be to God’, being duly steadfast and encouraged, as St Paul reminds us.

Prophecy is an interesting business. In that story of Ahab’s end, in the chapter after he has stolen Naboth’s vineyard, we are listening in on a debate which resonates in modern Christianity. Competing, or at least different, forms of communication from God to his people are observed and judged; underlying this dispute is a further-reaching one between institutional and charismatic leadership which has arisen repeatedly in Christian history. Ecstatic prophecy is the loser in this story, revealed as pliable to the demands of a controlling leader. Micaiah stands for the priestly word, which is tested by events. And the outcome is glossed as a vindication of ‘the word of the Lord.’

But there’s a complication in the detail: Micaiah is correct about Ahab’s military failure, but the gory posthumous humiliation of his end isn’t quite what was prophesied by Elijah in the previous chapter. It happens in the wrong place (Samaria, not Jezreel) and it has become more colourful: we have the dogs licking up his blood as promised, but also, in a detail worthy of Jacobean revenge tragedy, prostitutes bathing in it.

As the Vatican II document on scripture wisely remarks, the bible is ‘the word of God in human words’. That definition precisely and brilliantly captures the relationship of the biblical words on the page with the Word of God, who is Christ the Lord. The biblical words bear witness to the Word of God. It is always that way round.

So it is with Paul’s words about scripture this evening, which I unfairly juxtaposed with our racy Old Testament narrative.

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

The context here is Paul’s careful inclusion of the gentiles together with the Jews in the church of God. Much of his argument in Romans and Galatians is dedicated to demonstrating this joint status, without disowning the past. This is about living with change while remaining true to the Tradition. Paul writes from an open traditionalist’s perspective. He never disowns his own people or their salvation history, but his new understanding of the relationship with God, based on faith, reinterprets both positions as the foundation of the Church. That verse I quoted insists that continuity with tradition is not negotiable. He would be entirely with Micaiah and was, we know, very sceptical about the charismatic prophets.

The other way of dealing with the new covenant, would have been to disown the past, and to radically cull scripture, removing everything Jewish from view (as Marcion attempted to do a generation or two later). The Church decisively rejected this approach. Paul’s gospel, as I have said to you before, was to be good news for both Jew and gentile. His argument here is that what we call the Old Testament, correctly understood, always had the gentiles in view.

Jesus is ‘the Christ’, the Jewish Messiah, who has accepted Jew and gentile together. Because he remains a Jew, God’s promises to the fathers remain secure; but the promises of God confirmed to Israel are also those to Abraham which are fulfilled ‘through faith’ and thus available to all. Paul insists that the gentiles are never to forget that they were called through the Jews; the Jews are never to forget that their own calling had the gentiles in view from the first. The gentiles should remember that Christ was the servant of the circumcized, and the Jews that his risen lordship is universal.

Paul here makes the same point as he made early in his argument (4.23): Old Testament scriptures have a meaning for Christians today. He knows that the scriptures come to us from the past and were often directly composed for that historical context. But they are not merely a document from the past, because they were intended by God to continue to address Jews and Christians generation after generation. As a Christian Paul did not think, as Marcion later would, of rejecting the Old Testament: he recognises the validity of oracles entrusted by God to Israel of old as pertinent even for Christians. So, for Paul, the harmony of God’s people, whether Jew and Christian or Christian and Christian, is to the glory of God.

Issues of tradition and change remain for us. Paul’s insight is that a renewed understanding of the tradition must always include what has gone before. There are to be no exclusions based on new understanding, nor any anathemas issued by those who see rupture rather than development in change. Those who innovate and those who hold fast to the older ways are to be given equal places at the banquet. In his time, as in ours, such mutual acceptance sometimes breaks down. But there is no doubt for Paul that God’s glory can only be served by a purpose which includes us all. So,

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.