Who has pottered by this way, then?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A breathless swim through the New Testament

Hurling yourself into a flowing river gets you much wetter than merely dipping a toe in. Reading whole books of the Bible rather than dipping into passages immerses you in a way which can similarly take your breath away.

Easter reading challenge
During Holy Week this year, I decided to start to read all the books of the New Testament. I'd realised that, while daily reading of the Lectionary makes for completeness of reading the content of the Bible, there is something to be said for reading each of the component books as a self-contained piece. It's a different way of engaging. I also wanted to read these books of the Bible one after the other, to get some sense of the broader flow of the New Testament. Rather than being drawn to the most deliciously-worded, thought-provoking or challenging verses or ideas and studying those in depth, reading a book (or letter) gets you into the world of the author, keeps some sense of the bigger picture and throws up wider themes.
So, having finished this self-set task a few weeks ago and having had time to let my brain digest a little, what did I get out of it?

The Gospels
Holy Week and Easter Week is a fantastic time to read the Gospels, I found. As the over-arching story of the life of Jesus was repeated four times with different voices, emphases and differing selections of what was important to include, it was brought home to me how wonderful it must have been to spend time in Jesus's company. Confusing at times, yes, but wonderful. What came to me afresh was how eager the authors each were to communicate something amazing with their readers, to try to distil that first-hand experience into something which explained what had changed them - indeed, what had changed everything.

Having the same tale told by different authors is much more than taking different oral traditions within the early Church and setting them down. It's a nuanced explanation of who Jesus is, what the nature of his ministry was, what people expected of him and records Jesus's teaching. Whoever decided to put John's gospel last played a blinder in my opinion. Having read the other Gospels so closely beforehand, John seemed to perform an act of summing up for me, reinforcing as a close eye-witness the events surrounding Jesus's death and resurrection in a very personal and vivid way. Immediately after reading this, I read through Kit Widdows' excellent 'Fourth Witness' , an imaginative retelling of John's Gospel which helped focus my reflections post-Easter.

Acts and Letters
Should the Bible have similar
warning signs on the cover?
Reading the Acts of the Apostles straight after the Gospels continued the theme of excitement and action, and of explanation. This came across as a wonderful testimony of "how we got here" to the early Church. And then the wonderful letters to the early Christian communities in all their variety, addressing doctrinal and organisational issues, again brought home to me the very human nature of scripture. These were all documents written - and saved and held dear - for a purpose. I'm not at all wishing to play down the inspired nature of scripture here, but the Holy Spirit really does use the personalities of people with all their individuality and imperfections to convey truth. Indeed, were scripture less human, it would be less able to communicate the divine. Remember, God did not merely send a manual, a vision or inspirational art (though He did all of that as well) but sent  a human: His only begotten Son, Jesus. As the Church grew, people continued to be people. That is to say, they got it wrong, disagreed with how best to live as Christians, how to engage with the social and political situations they found themselves operating in and how to understand and express the full implications of the Gospel. It is very reassuring to read about the early Church and realise that God is faithful and doesn't just leave us to get on with it as we see best. Tradition, scripture and reason are all called upon in these books and offer a model of how best to seek God's guidance in living our lives, developing our ministries and responding to what is going on around us.

Some bits of the Bible can appear a bit off-putting, or
even dangerous! Ask for the Holy Spirit to help navigate,
and ask someone who's been that way before... chances

are, others have given it some thought too.
And right at the end of the New Testament, with all that had gone before it, the Book of Revelation seemed to make sense in a new way. Now, I don't mean I made sense of all the imagery, or even understood the half of it, and it still looked like a dangerous book to include in the canon of scripture to me (it seems uniquely crafted to be quoted out of context to justify all sorts of quite mind-bending nonsense). However, in the Book of Revelation I sensed an inspired, prophetic call to God's people, to those same people I'd met in the Gospels as they met with and engaged with Jesus, to the same wonderfully inspired apostles and early followers of the risen Christ of the Acts of the Apostles, and to the same beleaguered communities of saints scattered around the Mediterranean to whom letters were written. In Revelation I sensed a call to remember that the world looks very different through God's eyes. His perspective is bewildering to us if we get bogged down in our social and cultural concerns. But instead of being bewildered by the rather overwhelming imagery of this book, for the first time I got a sense of the wonder of what St. John the Divine was grappling with. A sense of the wonder of our Creator God which made perfect sense in the context of the Gospel of the Word Made Flesh - God With Us - the dead and risen Christ, and seen through the eyes of a Church inspired and equipped by the Holy Spirit, the means of the Kingdom of God being prepared for, enabled and lived. To a persecuted Church, these writings represented a call to keep their eyes on the bigger picture.

It's worth saying that, along the way I did indeed get distracted (in the best possible way) by the odd deliciously-crafted, thought-provoking and challenging passage - some of which made it into blog entries in the meantime - but I would certainly recommend that, if it is not already your practice, the reading of complete books of the Bible in "one chunk" (not necessarily in one sitting for the longer books, but in a fairly restricted period of time so you can keep a train of thought going) is something worth considering.

Try reading one book of the New Testament as one chunk. The Acts of the Apostles is a good one to start with.

Where might you look for help in navigating the Bible?

What positive benefits are there in dipping into scripture rather than this more immersive approach?

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