Last Sunday was Bible Sunday, so I thought that today I would talk about how our readings are chosen each week.
We use a guide called the lectionary, literally meaning a collection of what to read. Over the years of church history, there have been several different systems for working out the readings for any given time, and there are two main sorts. One is the related lectionary, where the same theme occurs in the Old Testament reading, the Gospel, and the Epistle. These are really good if you’re preaching, because it is usually quite clear how they relate to, and illuminate each other. The other main system is the continuous lectionary, whereby each week you get a new instalment of an ongoing story – recently we have been learning about Abraham, and his son Isaac, and this week, Isaac’s children. The Gospels also work through one particular gospel each year, Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B and Luke in Year C. John’s gospel is used in festival times such as Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas, each year. The Roman Catholic church, after the Vatican 2 council in the 1960s, set out the lectionary that is in use in many churches today, including the Anglican church.
The guide to prayers that we use is based on these readings too. Other things that are noted in the lectionary are important Saints’ days and Feast days, so the ongoing stories are interrupted. There are sometimes several options too, so for example if your church is big on St Mary, the feast days around her will have their own readings, but there will be alternatives for those who don’t have such a strong connection with Mary.
Our lectionary has readings for every day of the week, and clergy are urged to follow the daily discipline of services. We do these at home over our first cup of tea for the day, and have recently worked through Job, and Paul’s shipwreck in Acts. Our bishop has been known to ring clergy up fairly early in the morning and ask them what they thought of the readings! Checking up…
People use many different sets of readings to help them through the Bible. Many of you may have had Scripture Union notes, or Word for Today from Radio Rhema. The main thing is not so much how you access the Bible, but that you do, and don’t let it be just a dusty book on the shelf. A worn-out, falling apart Bible is much more use in our lives than a perfect one!
You have no doubt noticed too that there are many different versions of the Bible. Here in the service we use the NIV, while at home I use the NRSV. Different versions have slightly different emphases – one reason I use NRSV is because that is what was required for clergy in the Wellington Diocese, as part of my study and in ministry. It is a bit more modern than NIV and the main difference I see is that it tries to avoid calling God He where it is not necessary. God is beyond gender, and created us, male and female, in God’s own image. Our problem is that we don’t have a gender-neutral pronoun for God – well, we could call God ‘it’ but it seems a bit disrespectful somehow. The NRSV also uses gender-neutral words for people, not man and mankind when people are meant. You are probably all used to knowing that mankind includes both genders, and the few in between, but the usage of our language has moved, so it has become appropriate to have a version that reflects how we talk. Each generation has new ways of expressing themselves, and it is importunate that we do not let the Bible fossilise into ancient ways of talking, with Thee and Thou and language that doesn’t communicate today. Even in a modern translation St Paul can be a bit hard to understand, and a newer version, the Message bible, is good at making Paul’s writing easier to grasp. The Book of Revelation, however, is never going to be easy to understand!
As you use your Bible, if there is a passage you don’t quite grasp, pray about it, asking the author to light it up for you. Maybe read the same bit in a different version too – it might just click for you!
Of course the Bible is not just meant to flow into us, as we read it and remember the phrases. It is meant to flow out of us as we follow its teaching, and show love to those around us.
As St Francis of Assisi said, Preach the Gospel, if necessary, use words.