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God Speaks From The Bible

Lectionary readings

In worship, we conclude reading from and listening to the Bible with the declaration that this is “The Word of the Lord”, or “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.”

The Reformation heritage has that God speaks to individuals (and communities) through the Bible. But again and again I see pastors, worship leaders, and preachers effectively deny and undermine this Reformation insight in their practice.

1) They reduce the number of readings provided by the Revised Common Lectionary in order to be able to preach on all that is read. They will not have something read from the Bible without explaining it in the sermon. Or

2) They don’t have readings from the Bible at all, but only quote from the Bible to illustrate points within their sermon.

The real message that congregants receive is that they cannot be trusted to hear God speaking through the Bible. Everything has to be interpreted by the pastor, by the preacher. The real message is that this community is not open to listening to God speaking to individuals and the community through a reading from the Bible without any further preacher’s reflection or pastor’s interpretation.

Good liturgy has quite a different approach. The Revised Common Lectionary provides three readings and a psalm for the community and individuals to engage with. These readings mostly are unconnected to each other within that service, and what speaks to one person may not be the message for another. The intent in liturgy is that we listen together to what God is saying through the Bible. The sermon merely adds another pebble into the rippling pond of the service. The sermon is not the sole conduit for God’s message through which the Bible’s texts must pass.

Those who most strongly say they stand on the Reformation are often the worst violators of letting the Bible speak unfiltered.

This is the insight of Roman Catholicism in the Second Vatican Council, the insight that led to the three year lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary:

in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her [members], the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: “For the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12) and “it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13).

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15 Responses to God Speaks From The Bible

  1. Another good and thought provoking article Fr B – and a very important one. I am surprised you have not dealt with the all important business of delivering the Word.
    My experience is that it is extremely rare that one can actually hear the Word: readers who do not open their mouths, or have simply not prepared themselves for this very important ministry – and caterwauling self-important choirs that massacre the Psalm, and worse, a cantor who stands with the notion ‘I am here to perform’ – do not listen to me, watch me.’
    Invariably the worst sermons and homilies are those where the preacher insists he or she knows every link with all the readings and the psalm, which, as you may be suggesting, the connections are more by accident than design.
    I am reminded of my parish priest when I was a young man( and younger ) who, being rather old-fashioned, himself delivered all the readings with projected dignity and a short pause between each. In good lectio divina tradition he might sometimes ask the congregation to hold a few words in their heart and to later share their thoughts with each other or with him.
    Far too much jabber in today’s liturgies – how can anyone listen to what the Spirit has to say. I wonder how many preachers ‘listen’ to what She is saying as they prepare their sermon or homily?

  2. Bosco,
    In my congregation, we always use all the readings offered by the RCL, and the preaching usually touches only on one of them (and not always the Gospel). I value the connection the RCL enables between the congregation of which I am a part and all the other gatherings of the people of God across the world. It is a sign of unity in the fractured body – thanks be to God!

    However, I am less sanguine about the Reformation insight that God speaks through the scriptures. I rather see it as the enduring testimony, or witness, of God’s people through the ages which holds out to us the promise that God acts today as God acted in the past, thus affirming our participation in God’s salvific action. Which I would interpret as the tradition speaking rather than God. I think this makes sense given the historical process of the Bibles formation (and differences across traditions).

    Good preaching would, I hope, connect the stories of God’s response to the troubles of yesteryear to God’s expected response to the troubles of today. The RCL aids the preacher, by forcing her or him to reflect on the breadth of scripture, especially the troubling parts that stand in apparent opposition to any individual theology.

    peace,
    Jon White

    • Thanks, Jon, for your points which all make sense to me.
      The surprise I express in my blog post is about those who claim to hold to the Reformation insight contradicting this insight through the manner in which they do not allow the scriptures to speak for themselves but rather appear to require them all to be interpreted through the preacher.
      Blessings.

  3. Thanks Bosco.
    A question. In your experience, should the congregation have a copy of the readings to follow along to, or should we just listen, hopefully to a well projected readings?
    Andrew

    • Thanks, Andrew.

      I do not take a play’s script along to its performance and follow that, nor to a film. I go expecting that the play or film will be done in such a way that I am caught up in what is happening. I think the readers should, similarly, be so prepared that I am caught up in their reading. The community, of course, should know what readings are coming on Sunday so that they can prayerfully read them during the week in preparation.

      I can think of some exceptions. For those who are unable to hear or follow a reading proclaimed, have a text available. If other languages are common, have translations for those people available.

      ps. I don’t think we need to have the reading introduced with next week’s lotto number suggestions: “…chapter 17 from verses 4 to 7 and then 10 to 13” – the starting chapter and verse is fine.

      I would have this approach for prayers, including the eucharistic prayer, also.

      What do you think?

      Blessings.

      • I absolutely agree Fr B. A well read lesson from the lectern/ambo can be inspiration itself.
        I confess though that one good reason to be at St Peters Willis Street on a Sunday morning is that there are Bibles in the pews.
        A recent visit to a Catholic church (I shall not name) and there wasn’t a trace of Bible in the church – not even tucked away in the sacristy. Worrying.
        Having pondered more on your article, yes, God does speak ‘through’ the Scriptures and ‘through’ the voice of the reader – the latter being why it is essential readers speak to us, not at us, and more especially, do not mumble to themselves.
        Prayers and blessings. Br G-M.

      • Thanks for that Bosco. My personal preference is as you suggest, the readings listened to and not followed along. The parish I recently moved to has had the readings printed in an A5 booklet and so that culture is well set. However, until the sound system improves and more intention is put into training readers and building a culture of ‘hearing’, then I fear we would have far too many people missing out on the Liturgy of the Word all together.
        Blessings

  4. HI Bosco
    Your panegyric to the RCL and critique of Reformation legacy worship does not cut much mustard with me!

    1. I would bet a bit of money that services with no reading or maybe just a verse or two mentioned in the sermon owe little to the Reformation and much to Pentecostal theology (the word of God comes via the Spirit anointing the preacher).

    2. A reduction to one reading, in my experience, in actual Reformation legacy churches, is in a context in which much reading of Scripture takes place across the whole life of the church (small group Bible studies, one to one opening Scripture together, daily personal Bible readings).

    3. One reading allows a focus on Scripture which is different but not of itself inferior or superior to several readings via the RCL. (With the RCL, how many in the congregation concentrate attention on all readings? How many of the readings are read well?)

    4. All preaching, whether in RCL or one reading churches, works from a presumption that commentary on Scripture is a good thing, that the mere public reading of Scripture is enhanced by public exposition of the same readings. Whether the sermon strives to find a ‘golden thread’ of meaning across several readings, comments in turn on each reading, focuses on just one of the readings (as, in my experience, many RCL preachers do), or works from just one reading, the sermon makes a statement about which aspect or aspects of the readings should, in the preacher’s view, be imprinted on the congregations’ minds. Is one approach intrinsically superior to another?

    5. Within the Reformation legacy I find myself hearing from others, and sometimes experiencing myself (as an RCL follower, currently), the frustration of inadequately following through a specific book of the Bible. Slavish following of the RCL has the medium to long term advantage of presenting more Scripture to the congregation than the one reading approach. But the one reading approach opens the possibility that a sermon series on, say, 1 Corinthians or Amos, presents every verse of the book to the congregation and not the selection made by the RCL compilers.

    In short, the RCL approach has advantages, unquestionably. But I question your critique of Reformation legacy handling of Scripture.

    • Thanks, Peter. Did you actually read the post? It is not a panegyric to the RCL, it is an encouragement for those in the footsteps of the Reformation to keep faith with the Reformers who would read the Bible without needing everything to be funnelled through one person’s interpretation. This morning I prayed with five unrelated Biblical texts (not counting the Lord’s Prayer etc) without any commentary, just as God’s word as I start this day. Some of it spoke to me, some of it not. Others with the same discipline will have heard God address them from those very same words but in quite different ways. Cranmer, Luther and others would have been totally at home with that activity. Blessings.

  5. Hi Bosco
    I would hope, I think you might too, that sermons are not ‘one person’s interpretation’!

    Rather, the preacher is a faithful minister in God’s church refreshing the minds of the congregation with the understanding of Scripture affirmed through the ages within the church.

    • Yes, Peter, I would hope this too, with the caveat that sometimes the understanding of Scripture affirmed through the ages within the church has been wrong, or the understanding has been right, but what the scripture actually says is wrong. Blessings.

  6. In my congregation, once the readings are proclaimed, we have the “echo of the word”, which means that anyone may address and speak about what has been read. Many times, that goes above and beyond, or turns bad, but the priest or myself make the point at the end, to correct the wrong interpretations. Many times, people just ask questions about obscure things in the readings, things that otherwise we would have let aside. Many times, someone of the congregation has a much better interpretation than myself on a particular thing that has been read.

    The early Church had “doctors” (preachers) who were lay people; only when heresy rose up, the proestos became a bishop = supervisor of the faith.

    • Does your congregation have a website, Georges. It is a fascinating concept, almost Quaker. I was (as a lay person) part of an (Anglican) parish where the homily was regularly in dialogue with the small (60ish in number) congregation. Blessings.

      • Our congregation is a churchgroup of the Union of Utrecht’s French-speaking mission. We are only 11ish in number. The Episcopalian priest who presides our Eucharist is trying to introduce this “concept” in the English parish whereof he is in charge. Our website is st-servais.be

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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