Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
(Colossians 3:16 NRSV)
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
(Matthew 24:35 NRSV)
We live in the age of information. It is hard for anyone, perhaps under the age of 40 or even 50, to realise just what a revolution has taken place in the way we communicate.
Sadly, I am old enough to remember the time when, if my mum wanted to phone her brother in Toronto, she would have to book the call in advance, and it had to be kept short because it would cost an arm and a leg to speak for a few almost unintelligible moments over a transatlantic phone line.
I also remember the introduction in the UK of Subscriber Trunk Dialling, the great innovation of the 1960s which enabled you to call another town, London even, without having to ask an operator to connect you.
Nowadays my daughter in the US might as well be in the next room. We can communicate at the speed of light and my mid-afternoon text can wake her from her morning slumbers.
The technology is fabulous, and I come from the generation which can remember when these things were just gadgets in James Bond films, Dr Who and Thunderbirds. Now, it’s all everyday reality – and I must admit that I think it’s great. I really do. We have never been so connected. Communication around the world is just so easy. And we take all of this for granted. It’s utterly normal.
And I think this is important because communication has always fascinated me.
Now, you have to understand that, although I have spent nearly half of my professional career in and around the communication industry, there is nevertheless an irony in my fascination with communication.
The irony is that I am, like many others, a deep introvert by personality. I have learned that truth by many years of experience and exploration. Being an introvert, I can only cope for so long in large groups of people. Lots of people, all chatting, sharing their views and airing their opinions gets me agitated, and I value significantly those times when I can just be on my own.
But I can’t let go of the simple truth that communication is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to the human race. Its not just about technology. Simple words, and the way that we use them, are fundamental to our ability to be human. Words matter. And not only do words matter, but the way we use them matters too.
And for Christians, the words of the Bible matter, too. Greatly.
But, as with all our conversations, we need to be aware that how we use words can significantly affect their impact and meaning; and we need to remember that all words are culturally defined.
Let me give you an example which some might find painful, but it does illustrate the point.
If I were to say that, “Suicide is a dreadful thing,” I would be expressing compassion for the victim and his or her family; trying to understand something of the anguish which had brought this tragic event to happen, and to seeking to care for the victim’s relatives and friends. Seems common sense to me.
However, were I to go back a hundred years, the phrase “Suicide is a dreadful thing,” might well be a statement of condemnation of the person who had taken his own life, because the religious and cultural environment of the time simply couldn’t contemplate that a God-given life could be so bad as to want to end it.
It’s just an example. Thank God we understand anxiety and depression much better today, but let us not pretend that we don’t have our taboos, which are just as significant.
So, the words and the way that we use them really matter, and that is why it is of the greatest importance to try to understand the words of the scriptures as they were meant to be heard in their time, and as they offered for us to hear now.
Simply looking through the Bible to try to find a verse which suits your feelings or opinions is a lazy and somewhat dangerous pastime.
There is an old saying which says that “a text without a context is a pretext.” It means that if you use the Bible simply to reinforce your own prejudices, as many have done over the centuries, then you are committing a great sin with the word of God.
The Bible is a wonderful source of inspiration and guidance, as well as much else; but it is also a dangerous weapon, an unstable explosive, and you must use it with care. Firing off a verse to suit your convictions is simply dishonest, and will usually be seen as such.
But, at the most fundamental level, so many people simply do not know that they are deeply loved by God, their Creator, and that Jesus came to restore us into a relationship with God. That is why our greatest call at this point in the life of the Church is to proclaim and explain the gospel – the good news of God in Jesus Christ – to all who will listen; and there are many who will, in our society which lacks hope and purpose. But we must do it with understanding, sensitivity, and great care for those with whom we would communicate.
The words of the Gospel matter, they really do! Nothing, I repeat, and I repeat again: nothing matters as much as our call to proclaim and explain the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to our and future generations; not the way we worship, not the way we organise our church life, not the way we relate to the institution of the church.
Nothing, is more important than our call to proclaim and explain the Gospel to the people of our time.
And the words we use will matter, as will the way that we use them.