Sunday, May 14, 2006

Do you understand what you are reading?

Reading the Bible is one of the most important spiritual disciplines that Christians practice. Deacons, priests, and bishops all receive Bibles when they are ordained. Our baptismal vows include the promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching.” The New Testament is our primary source for the apostles’ teaching. And one of the great collects in the Prayer Book tells us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the holy scripture so that we may “embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.”

Some Christians maintain that prayer and Bible reading and virtually the only spiritual disciplines that Christians need to practice. The Protestant Reformers of the 16th c. are said to have taught 3 things: sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scripture – grace alone, faith alone, and scripture alone.

What I want to say this morning (and say as emphatically as possible) is that grace, faith, and above all scripture are never alone. There may be exceptions, but by and large grace, faith, and scripture all come to us through others, that is, they come to us in community.

Consider two questions in today’s reading: Philip approaches the Ethiopian court official who is reading from the prophet Isaiah and says, “Do you understand what you are reading?” and he responds with another question, “How can I unless someone guides me?”

Now before we delve into those questions, let’s step back and look at some of the details of this story. First, note that the Ethiopian was reading aloud. That’s what one did in the ancient world. Reading silently is a relatively recent phenomenon. Reading was not normally a private activity because books were scarce and expensive. Of course, when I say “book” I don’t mean books as we know them. Books in the ancient world were written on scrolls. Judaism has preserved the tradition of the scroll. A central feature of every synagogue is a large cabinet called an “ark” that contains the Torah written on a scroll. Torah scrolls are always written by hand and they take about a year to produce. Thus, they are enormously expensive. Books as we know them, that is individual leaves of paper or animal skin bound together along their left edge, came into being around the same time that the Christian faith came into being. You will notice that icons of Christ frequently show him holding a book, but Jewish art invariably portrays the Torah as a scroll.

That the Ethiopian was reading tells us a great deal about him. First, he was better educated than the average person in the ancient world. He had to be because the text tells us that he was the treasurer of the queen of Ethiopia. Second, he was a person of considerable power and status. The text tells us that he invited Philip to sit in his “chariot” with him. This was probably not the kind of chariot that was portrayed in the film Ben Hur but something more like a coach. There was not only room for two passengers but room for the Ethiopian to open and read a bulky scroll. Third, he was a man of wealth because he could afford his own copy of the scrolls on which Isaiah was written. More than likely, Isaiah was written on several scrolls. Finally, the fact that he was reading Isaiah and had been to Jerusalem for the feast of Weeks or Pentecost is a fascinating detail. Many ancient peoples were strongly drawn toward Judaism and admired it but did not go through the conversion ritual and become Jews. They were called God-fearers. The Ethiopian may have been one of these. On the other hand, there were Jews in Ethiopia from before the time of Christ. Indeed, legend has it that the stone tablets on which Moses recorded the Ten Commandments were taken to Ethiopia and are still there. It is possible that the Ethiopian was a Jew.

However, that is all to set the scene for the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian. Philip hears him reading from the prophet Isaiah. “"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth,” and asks “Do you understand what you are reading?” and the Ethiopian replies, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?”

In many ways, the Bible is a simple book. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” That’s pretty straightforward. It’s comforting to us at every age, from infancy to senility. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “What can separate us from the love of God in Christ?” So far, so good. These verses are pretty straightforward, although when we begin to unpack them, we find that they have layers upon layers of meaning.

My main point this morning is not that the Bible is a complex book written over many centuries in at least two languages that requires years of training to understand. My point is slightly different. Rather, my point is this: No one has ever read the Bible alone. When you are alone in your home (or your chariot!) and open your Bible and start to read aloud, you are not alone. The Holy Spirit is there, to be sure, but what we should all realize is that whenever we read our Bibles we are a part of an enormous conversation that began long before we were born and will continue long after we die. We always read the Bible in conversation with every minister, Sunday School teacher, and Bible study leader we have ever encountered. We read the Bible in conversation with every book or article we have read about the Bible. We read the Bible in conversation with everyone we have ever talked to about the Bible. Scripture is never sola; it is never alone.

We do not exist in isolation and neither does the Bible. The Bible is a product of a community and always comes to us in community. The Bible was given to us by someone – our parents, our church, a friend. Even if we went down to the bookstore by ourselves and bought a Bible, someone or something planted the idea in our minds that we wanted to read the Bible and know more about what it said. The individual in his or her hotel room who picks up the Gideon Bible and reads it is reading a Bible that was placed there by a community.

And that takes us to the second question in today’s reading. The Ethiopian said to Philip, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” The community is the correct environment in which to read the Bible. The more we isolate ourselves from community, the less likely we are to read the Bible correctly.

Sophomore year in college 2 strangers showed up at a Bible study group I was a part of. My friend Jim was also a part of that group. Jim was lonely, unhappy, and probably clinically depressed. He was doing badly in school and probably should not have been at Harvard. The two strangers took Jim aside and he spent the entire night talking to them. The next day Jim was gone. He spent the next year or two in a cult, until he finally came to his senses. But if Jim had come back to our group after talking to these strangers, if he had asked the rest of us what we thought of their interpretations of the Bible, there’s a good chance that he might not have gone off with them. Enormous harm is done when self-appointed prophets isolate themselves and a few followers from the rest of the world. Think of Jim Jones and Jonestown and David Koresh and Waco.

The church tells us that God guides us through scripture, reason, and tradition. Tradition is the conversation that we are a part of whenever we read the Bible. It is the eternal dialogue. It is the counterpoint, the polyphony of voices all the way from St. Paul to your first Sunday School teacher, St. Thomas Aquinas to Father So and So who baptized you and routinely put you to sleep with his sermons.

Finally, and briefly, there is another question. The Ethiopian was captivated by the story that Philip told and wanted to be baptized. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Scripture is not our only spiritual practice. Christian spiritual practices include the sacraments, and this even more vividly demonstrates how Christianity is not a solitary enterprise. We cannot baptize ourselves. We cannot feed ourselves at the Lord’s Table. We are baptized and fed by others, by a community. Just as scripture is never sola, neither are grace and faith ever sola, alone. Grace and faith come to us in, with , and among others.

We do not know what happened to the Ethiopian court official, but tradition tells us that he founded the Ethiopian church. Community begets community. Philip, a member of the church in Jerusalem, encountered the Ethiopian, who, in turn, carried the faith from Jerusalem to Ethiopia.

The Christian faith is a story, a story we tell whenever we sit down at table together. Every child knows that the story begins “Once upon a time…” and ends “happily ever after”, but as soon as we say “happily ever after” someone else wants to hear the story, and so we begin again, “Once upon a time…” So tell the story and do not tire of telling it. Tell it straight through from “Once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” You and I are part of a great conversation. Someone told you the story and someone wants you to tell them the story. “Once upon a time…” Amen.