'A Higher Loyalty'
I have borrowed the title for today's sermon from a book recently published in the United States, written by James Comey, the former Director of the FBI, who recounts something of the cacophony and chaos surrounding the White House. The title is 'A Higher Loyalty', and a Higher Loyalty is the underlying theme of our Gospel Lesson. I say 'underlying' because behind the two stories we heard there are resonances of a persistent and ongoing debate about the role of scripture in a believer's life. The scriptures quoted in the Gospel stories of the disciples in the grain field and the man with the withered hand were, of course, Jewish scriptures: our scriptures are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
The Pharisees in the passage from Mark's Gospel (above) saw their scriptures as the final authority dispensing the last word according to the plain meaning of the text. For Jesus the scriptures were only one factor among others in reaching his decision. One of these factors was human need: and if people were hungry, as the disciples were in the cornfield and as David was when he ate the sacred bread of the presence; or, if your livelihood were threatened and compromised, as was the man's with the withered hand so that he could not work to sustain himself and his family; then, even although you owed a loyalty to the sabbath law, there was a higher loyalty which demanded your allegiance, the call of need.
In other words, the scriptures, even in those parts which come down to us as direct commandments, like the Sabbath law, are not determinative or definitive in themselves: they are subject to interpretation and adaptation. The meaning and force in their original settings must of course be sought and understood, but settings change, circumstances vary, society develops, and the world now differs enormously from the original settings.
Think of modern problems in the realms of peace and war, medical ethics, business standards, equality of the sexes, sexuality in all its evolving forms, and many more culture changes. When these new issues and problems arise it becomes clear that the Bible in its literal form is inadequate to deal with them except by laying down very general principles which sometimes may be too general to be helpful.
Does that mean that we should abandon or discount the Bible? By no means. While our Church has never equated the Word of God with the letters of the Bible, it has always maintained that the Word of God is contained in the Bible, and that consequently the Bible is fundamental and formative for our Christian faith. That is why the Bible plays such a prominent part in our church services. The solemn carrying in of the Bible at the beginning of the service is a dramatic expression of the importance of Holy Scripture in our worship, and our three Bible lessons each week, together with a psalm and a Bible-based sermon, demonstrate how the worshipping Church is the people of the Book.
This almost-veneration of the Bible is not because we are literalists, but because we believe that within the words of the Bible we can find the Word of God itself. But we have to look for it, search for it, listen for it as attentively as young Samuel in our Old Testament lesson listened for the voice of God. It is no accident that we preface the reading of the Bible with 'Hear the word of God', or 'Listen for the word of God.' As the hymn puts it:
God spoke to us long, long ago,
The Bible isn't an answer book that clearly and conclusively spells out exactly what we should do and what we should believe on any given topic. It invites us to study it, think about what it meant in the time that it was first told, and reflect on our present day situation and how it might speak to us now. Whenever we interpret a passage from the Bible, we should try to do so with the mind of Christ, who, as our Gospel lesson shows, allowed commandment to give way to compassion and the niceties of law to give way to need. Our loyalty to the Bible should never be in doubt, but there is a higher loyalty our loyalty to Jesus and his way of doing things.
There's a moment in Shakespeare's 'King Lear' when the poor old mad king meets but doesn't recognise his closest friend and most trustworthy courtier, the Earl of Kent.
'How now?' says the king. 'What art thou?'
We see in the countenance of Jesus that which we would fain call Master: what we see is authority, an authority higher than that of the Bible, an authority that bids us yield him that Higher Loyalty of which we've been thinking this morning.
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