The Gospels as Scripture

The climax of the first part of the Divine Liturgy is the reading of the Gospel. Unlike the reading of the Epistle, we do not simply read the Gospel. When the Epistle is read the reader simply stands in the midst of the people and chants the words of the apostle. But when the Gospel is read at the Liturgy, we make more of a liturgical fuss. Before reading the Gospel, the deacon censes the Gospel on four sides as the book rests upon the altar. (If this censing is part of a larger censing which for some unknown reason includes censing all of the altar area, the icon screen, and the people, the people can miss that the main point is the censing of the Gospel book as a preparation for reading it.)   Then the priest prays that the divine Master may illumine the hearts of all who will hear the gospel so that they may understand His divine gospel teachings. Then he solemnly gives the Gospel book to the deacon, who leaves the altar to take his stand in the midst of the people. He is attended by lights, and sometimes by liturgical fans. The people are told to “stand upright!” That is, if they are slouching, sitting, or leaning against a pillar, he asks them to stand at attention as they would when a king comes among them. The priest blesses them with the Lord’s peace, and only after all this does the deacon begin to read the saving words of the Gospel. These words are like no other words in the world. Jesus Himself said that heaven and earth would pass away, but His words would never pass away (Mt. 24:35). No wonder we stand at attention. We are not reading the words of one who is dead, but the words of One who is alive and is life itself. He stands upon us, and when the deacon reads the Gospel, those who have prepared their hearts can hear Jesus Himself speaking to them through those chanted words. In the Gospel reading the Church does not simply listen to ancient literature. It encounters the living Christ. As Francis Schaeffer once said, He is there and He is not silent. The Lord speaks among us still.

What does all this liturgical fuss mean? In the Gospels we do not merely read the words of Christ. We read about His deeds also. Sometimes He doesn’t say much. Even when He does something as momentous as overturning the primordial and invincible power of death and raises Jairus’ daughter, He makes no speeches. We hear no dramatic and timeless pronouncements, no universal or inspiring sermon. There is no word about the tragedy of death or the preciousness of life, no moral or lesson to be learned. He simply asks the hired group of professional mourners, “Why make a commotion and weep? The child is not died, but is asleep.” Then He enters the room where the girl lies dead and utters two little words, “Talitha kum” (“up child”), and the girl awakens from death, sits up, and begins to walk about, presumably looking for something to eat, since Christ suggested then to her parents that they feed her. We hear no inspiring sermon. We simply observe the power of God.

This means that in the Gospels we do not find divine philosophy or “wisdom to live by”. We find a divine Person to live with, a living Lord who continues to do in His Church the sorts of things He did when He walked the shores of Galilee and the dusty paths of Palestine. Christ is not a philosopher but a King, a king who calls us to do battle with Him under His banner. Christian discipleship consists of entering into His divine life, and taking our own little parts in the divine drama that He continues to work in the world. After Luke’s Gospel concluded, we may read in the opening of Luke’s second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, these words: “The first account I composed, Theophilos, about all that Jesus began to do and teach…” That is, in the Luke’s first account, The Gospel of Luke, we read about what Jesus began to do and teach. In The Acts of the Apostles, we read about what Jesus continued to do and to teach. Jesus was not finished doing and teaching after His ascension. He continued to do and to teach through His Church—that is, through us. The works of the saints constitute Jesus’ continued ministry on the earth. And we are called to be saints as well, and to let the Lord continue to do His works through us. Admittedly His works through you and me will be less impressive and make for less interesting reading than His works through Peter and Paul. But we also are members of His Church, just as Peter and Paul were. When we read His words, we receive His call to fulfill them, and to allow ourselves to add our own little chapter to the ongoing works of the Lord.

What does it mean that the works and words of Christ are the Church’s Scripture? Simply this: that Christianity means a relationship with the living Christ, and of allowing our little lives to reflect His transcendent glory. Christianity is not only about hearing what Jesus says but also about seeing what He does—and not only during the days of His flesh, but also now, through His Church, and through us.

 

4 comments:

  1. Father, I loved your article, and it’s interesting to contrast your approach to the Gospels with that of Thomas jefferson, who,saw in them such a perfect philosophy that he, using scissors and glue, cut and pasted, chopping out the miracles to produce the so called Jefderson Bible, with which he hoped to impart Christian morality to the native Americans, or First Nations in Canadian parlance. This Jefderson Bible between the 1900s and 1950s was given to members of Congress and could be considered an integral text of the American civic religion.

    However I find it, like Unitarianism, a spiritually poor book. The mystery of Christ is that he was both God incarnate and a man of action; the message he taught was as much through his miraculous deeds as any of the wonderful things he said. Through Christ, we know we have a loving God who will raise us from the dead, drive out our demons, and restore our sight, willingly and out of love; that he also expressed what Jefferson called “the most perfect moral philosophy” is simply the natural consequence of him being the incarnation of infinite love, goodness and virtue, but one can really see the gaps in the so called Jefferson Bible and in the Unitarian / Socinian Christology.

    Thus I think you show us the correct way to read the Gospels: as a demonstration of the love of God for his children expressed through action, and explained through moral instruction. Jefferson, in viewing it as a sublime philosophy blighted by what he perceived as the spurious addition of supernatural episodes by primitive, superstitious people who would have ignored it otherwise, lost the plot in a big way.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I knew that Jefferson produced his own version of the Bible, but was not aware of its wide distribution. It does help to explain the growth of American civic religion.

      1. The Jefferson Bible has never been widely distributed to,the general public, but during,a 50 year period it,was given to all newly,elected members of Congress (I am not sure if that includes Senators, who unlike your Senators, are both powerful and an elite club). I am a bicameralist but I think I prefer the upper house to be a place of sober second thought,,rather than the scene of the manifest battles in A,ericams politics. I wish your provinces still had bicameral parliaments.

        At any rate, given the broad influence even of representatives, it would propagate certain ideas about the Founding Fathers and their relation with God. As a matter of historical fact, Ben Franklin was an Anglican who collaborated with the infamous Sir Francis Dashwood on a shortened prayer book, some were desists, a few were Quakers or Ro,an Catholics, some were traditional Christians (I believe John Hancock called the deist work of Thomas Paine a “crapulous mass” to use his precise language), and many of the rank and file Yankees were Comgregationalist, their preachers being nicknamed by the British “the black-robed regiment”). After the war the former Puritan congregations in Boston and a new other places in New England, lead by the seminary at Harvard and emboldened by the First Amensment, became deist. There was a lack of mysticism in these churches, which the colonials made up for mainly by indulging in Freemasonry with its elaborate ritual. One Unitarian church, Kimgs Chapel in Bosron had been Anglican and uses a BCP to this date stripped of Trinitarian references; it makes an interesting contrast with the Antiochian Western Rite Vicarate’s St. Andrews Awevice Book. Most early Unitarians still believed in the Bible and thought themselves Christian, so for them the Jefferson Bible would have been a bridge too far.

        I am Patriotic and love the study of Christianity in early America, but I am not a huge fan of Jefferson, because I toured Monticello and saw the slave quarters, and I’ve also lived in Ghana and toured the slave trading castles. Where was Washington freed all of his slaves on his death, Jefferson slept with his, and though intending to free them, got so much in debt so as to be unable to. However om the bright side he did buy us New Orleans, which Imvisited and fell in love with in 1997, aside from the depravity of Bourbon Street; I’m hoping to go back there some day and find it having restored itself to how I remember it.

        I myself don’t thing it’s wrong to compile sets of Bible verses for particular purposes for private devotional study; for example, if Jefferson wanted to read all the sayings of Jesus in a content-free manner. I myself have thought of compiling for analysis all sayings and acts of Christ mentioned in the Epistles for further study. However where Jefferson erred was in his anti-clerical, deist contempt for the miraculous acts as recorded in the Gospels, his supposition that they were falsehoods that had been bolted on, and his idea that the Native Americans would adopt Christisn ethics more readily with those verses removed (also displaying a certain racist contempt for Native American ethics, which as we have learned were not savage, with the possible exception of the highly technologically advanced Aztec culture, which looks much like our own, given that like the Aztecs,we look down with contempt, even now, on people we deem primitive, and like the Aztecs we have made it a habit to practice human sacrifice through abortion, euthanasia and the execution of people who are often innocent).

  2. Father, as a correction, Senators as well as Representatives did receive a Jefferson Bible., they were published by the Government Printing Office. In 1997 a libertarian group began printing them and resuming the practice. Jefferson originally asked Priestley, the British naturalist and proto-Unitarian, to do the work; Jefferson also once expressed the view that “There is not a young man now living in America who will not die a Unitarian”, so enraptured was he by this doctrine. Give Jeffersons inability to control his debts and manumit his slaves, including his lover, I really fell sorry for him: he seems to demonstrate all the symptoms of a man laboring under the crushing burden of Prelest. A sad end to a man who helped the US as well as the UK and Canada to become safe harbors for the persecuted Orthodox and other religious minorities. I think there is nothing sadder than when the devil leads some one into prelest and all their wonderful talent and inate morality can’t stop them from marching gleefully off to the gallows of the soul, but perhaps if we pray fervently we can trust our all merciful God will rescue that which can be rescued.

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