“There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.”
Well, there you have the beginning of a good story and there is nothing like a good story. I plan on continuing our exploration of four big topics: Deification, Participation, Imitation, & Desire, for the rest of the liturgical year and hopefully we will also discover how to regularly and intentionally appropriate the reality of deification, participation, imitation, and desire. By appropriation, I mean our intentional, intelligent, and responsible taking hold of these realities. “Taking,” is, by the way, the personal act that actualizes God’s reality (which is the only really real reality) for yourself, your family, your parish, and the world. All of the Sacraments either outright direct you to “take” or they presuppose your taking. “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, given for thee…Take and eat.” “I take thee for my wedded wife…” The only Sacrament that does not presuppose your taking is Holy Baptism and the reason that it does not presuppose your taking is because it is the Sacrament that bestows upon you the ability to act, the ability to take. So in our study over the next few months you will be called upon to take and eat the Word of God written. You will also be called upon to take Christ Jesus as your true “wedded Husband,” knowing yourself to be his holy Bride, destined to flower forth in his image and likeness forever. The way we will make personal progress along that path is by being attentive to the stories Jesus told his Apostles and the stories about Jesus that the Apostles passed on the Church. But first I want make a few clarifications about Bible which happens to be our source for these narratives.
For the next 25 Sundays, that would be till Advent, 12 of the Gospel lessons are taken from Luke. Of the 13 remaining, 9 are taken from Matthew and 2 are taken from Mark, and 2 are taken from John. Seven of the Gospel lessons from Luke are parables while others are illustrative stories or sayings and some narrate historical events. There is a unity to these narratives, and when we include the Epistles the sense of unity is all the more pronounced. All these texts revolve around the central figure of Jesus Christ: He is either presenting a narrative to his audience or he is himself the protagonist in an eyewitness recollection; frequently, we have these elements combined. What I want to do this morning is to focus on the New Testament – its unity, its place in our community life, and the doctrine of inspiration. The New Testament is the life-story of Jesus Christ which is the life-story of God. Through the grace of God and his provisions of participation, deification, imitation, and desire, our individual life-stories have become part of God’s life-story.
As you know, the Gospel of Luke is one of 4 Gospels and one of 27 books in the New Testament. As we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the varying accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching in the Gospels, it is obvious that the Evangelists who wrote the Gospels had some process by which they selected material for the text that would bear their names. In some cases they recounted the same events, while in other cases an Evangelist included narratives, parables, and sermons Jesus preached, that other Evangelists excluded from their Gospel. They excluded them either because they did not fit their design, the shape they were aiming for, or possibly because they did not know those narratives. For example, the story before us today about the Rich Man and Lazarus is only in Luke’s Gospel. The same is the case for the Prodigal Son and the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. Those stories are important for Luke’s purposes in composing his Gospel. But it would be silly for me or anyone else to fault Mark or Matthew or John for not including the same stories in their Gospels.
Each text has meaning and together all 27 books of the New Testament make a whole –- a whole that is made up of many members. Just as “the body is one and has many members… all the members are one body,” so the New Testament is a body of work with many members. Today, we may still refer to a writer’s “corpus or body of work,” meaning the collection of that person’s texts. We naturally expect one writer’s body of work to be identifiable as his own work by such marks as style, content, and interest. I want to suggest to you that something like that holds true for the New Testament. Think of the New Testament as a corpus of texts think of the New Testament itself as a library, a library that belongs to the Church whose whole purpose is to reveal the life-story Jesus Christ. To view the New Testament as a library dedicated to the telling the life-story of Jesus, is not to view it as a random collection of books; it is not even to view it as a set of books dedicated to one subject like you might find in a library dedicated to, let’s say, whaling in America or the biographies of Lincoln. Because the New Testament is a library dedicated and devoted to the life-story of Jesus Christ, it is a library dedicated to God’s life-story. Even though this library is dedicated to God’s life-story, I cannot read it without feeling that my life-story somehow has ultimate significance and that somehow the texts are reading me. One feels deeply that nothing is so important as pursuing the right interpretation, the Church’s understanding of the New Testament. And frequently, or at least occasionally, as we pursue the meaning of these texts, we have the uncomfortable sense that we are being pursued — as though the texts, rather than passively waiting to be interpreted, they begin to interpret us, individually as parishioners, and collectively as a parish. In this manner we are called upon to live up to the texts of the New Testament.
We do not believe in the Protestant principle of Sola Scripture which asserts that Christian worship, doctrine, and life are determined by Scripture Alone — Sola Scripture. One of the more obvious reasons we do not determine Christian worship, doctrine, and life on the basis of Sola Scriptura is there was a time when the New Testament was not but the Church was. And the Church was already busy with her mission. Before the New Testament, the Church was already the custodian of God’s truth and reality in Jesus Christ and the Church was equipped to bring the world to Jesus and to guide her children to God’s finality for their life and the life of the whole world. What came before the New Testament? What came before the narratives that enabled the Church to carry out her mission? That which was before the New Testament is that without which there would have been no New Testament.
First of all, the life of the Incarnate Word of the Father, Jesus Christ, came before the narratives. As we already know, the New Testament in whole, and in its parts, is all about the life of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father. When we experience power and life and love in the New Testament it is the power, the life and the love of Christ that we experience and it the very same power, life, and love that the first generation Church experienced. Secondly, the Holy Spirit was before the narratives. Even before the first epistle or Gospel was written to the first troubled parish, the Church was already worshipping God the Father, through God the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit that was poured out upon the Church on the Feast of Pentecost. The Holy Communion was already celebrated everyday of the week and Holy, Mother Church was already bestowing all the Sacraments upon her children in Jerusalem’s first generation — the very same Sacraments that she is bestowing upon her children today.
And in the fullness of time the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostles in a way similar to how he inspired King David; he refreshed their memories and then without doing violence to the writer, without turning the Evangelists into stenographers, the Holy Spirit moved preveniently upon these eye-witnesses so that the composed texts of the New Testament were authentically the word of the Apostle, but also the very Word of God. That is our understanding of the inspiration of Holy Scripture. Unlike some other religions that believe their holy books were dictated by God, we believe that inspiration was closer in kind to the Incarnation itself. The humanity, the personal experiences, education, talent, the voice of the Apostle, all that enables a writer to write, is used by God to render our inspired texts. Again, grace does not destroy nature, grace perfects nature.
Now we have to looked at what came before the New Testament, we need to look at what came after the New Testament. Obviously, one thing that came after the narratives was the action by which the Church intentionally collected the narratives into the corpus of its own that we know as the New Testament. The assembly of the New Testament was a long process of discrimination by which some texts were determined to be truly inspired Scripture, while other texts were determined to be useful, but not inspired Scripture. One reason we cannot truly embrace the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura is because there is no text in the New Testament that lists the books of the New Testament. Obviously that which selects is greater than that which is selected. A final authority, outside of Scriptures, was necessary to determine which books in the running for Scripture really were and are Scripture & that authority was the Church in Council guided by the Holy Spirit, which is to say, Holy Tradition. Furthermore, we believe that Holy Tradition, as in the Seven Ecumenical Councils’ dogmatic definitions, are absolutely authoritative & accurately state the truths of revelation contained in the Scriptures. The point is that the Scriptures do not provide their own interpretation and a final authority outside of Scripture is necessary. So there is a symbiotic relationship between Tradition & the Bible — both are treasures of the Church of the Living God, which, as St. Paul says, the House of God, “… is the pillar and ground of the truth.” As the foundation of ultimate truth, as well as the witness and guardian of the Scriptures, even in her lettuce years, the Church assembled this library for an audience of people who had been baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and thus shaped in their moral, religious, and intellectual life together because they share an unqualified devotion to Jesus Christ. The New Testament is meant for the Church and the Church is committed to the New Testament because of its apostolic origins. And because of its apostolic origin, the New Testament is authoritative for Jesus’ disciples, ancient and modern, who are called individually and as a community to live up to these texts. And because of our baptism, regeneration, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples of Christ are fitted to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Word of God to his glory and the benefit of the Church and the whole world.
Finally, the New Testament, of its own voice, from its own standpoint, does not claim to be “new” in the sense of being dropped down from Heaven without any connection to what God has been doing in the past. The New Testament possesses a profound sense of “historical consciousness” from its very beginning. Thus we have written in Matthew 1:1:
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham…”
This identity of Jesus Christ with Israel unfolds throughout the Gospels and later in the Epistles and his mission reaches all the way back to Adam. He is the Son of David, the Son of Abraham and he is the Last Adam. The last book of the New Testament, The Revelation declares its identity:
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place…”
These are wonderful, mysterious, and life-changing narratives. That is why we dedicate every Sunday of the year in part to hearing and opening up this Book that never fails to open up our hearts. As we study the Bible, our oldest family narratives, unfold around us and as they do, they enfold us into the love of God, and we discover once again, fresh as ever, that we have been given roles to play in God’s life-story. And that narrative is really and truly a never-ending story.