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bible sunday

The Rector: People of the Book

Sunday 24 October 2021
21st After Trinity – Bible Sunday

Sung Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

One of the tasks of the resident incumbent is locking up the Church at night

In winter time, I am generally alone, but in the summer months, there are often people in the Tower – and normally I try and speak to them

One night in June, there was a young family which included two excitable young boys

I asked the boys their names were but they were too over excited to respond

However, their father called them over and told me their names – which were called Mousa and Isa

And he then explained that Mousa was Moses and that Isa meant Jesus –

This brought me up quite sharply

Even though I was aware that Moses and Jesus were prophets in Islam, it was a stark reminder of our common Abrahamic tradition

A common Biblical heritage, which we also share with Jews, is all too often forgotten

Particularly in a world where Muslims are so often demonised and Anti-Semitism is so prevalent

As Christians, our nearest “faith relation” is, of course, Judaism, which shares the Old Testament with Christianity

However, as Jews do not have a New Testament, they tend to refer to the Old Testament simply as “The Bible” or “Tanakh” instead

Although the content is the same, unlike the Bible, the Tanakh is split into three sections

The first section is called the Law, [also known as the “Torah”] which equates to the first five books of the Bible, sometimes called the Pentateuch

Secondly, the Prophets [also known as “nevi’im”] which they break down into early and later prophets

And finally what is known as the Writings [or “ketuvim”] which consists of the books known to us as the Psalms, Proverbs and Chronicles

Interestingly, whereas as the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi, the Jewish Bible ends with the Book of Chronicles

An important distinction, as the prophet Malachi foresees the return of Elijah – and we believe Jesus

Whereas the Book of Chronicles foresees the restoration of Israel

Same book but very different interpretations

Although the Holy Book of Islam is the Quran, it too shares many characteristics with the Christian Bible

Many of their prophets’ are familiar to us as Christians

They include, Abraham, Moses, {Noah}, Jacob, {Ismael}, Solomon,{Job}, and Elijah {and Elisha}

And, in the New Testament, Zachariah, John the Baptist and Jesus

Furthermore, the Quran contains reference to the Pentateuch, the Psalms and the Gospels

Living in Bolton Abbey, we are also very aware that Muslims share festivals which are also recognisable to Christians and Jews alike

· The Feast of Ashura celebrates the flight of the Jews from Egypt

· Eid commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac

With this common heritage, it is not surprising therefore that Muslims refer to Christians as “People of the Book”

But this term also includes Jews – all three faiths having a common Abrahamic heritage

And whilst there may be radical differences of interpretation, I was always struck by the similarities rather that the differences

As most of you know, I was fortunate enough to teach these three Abrahamic faiths whilst I was a school chaplain

But, as a chaplain, I was also responsible for the liturgy at the school services

Which included the Advent Carol Service which was a major event at the beginning of December

The Advent Carol Service was wonderful as always

However, as a subsequent exercise in class, I rewrote the service to include extracts from the Torah and the Quran

Where the service had a reading from the prophet Isaiah for instance, I would include the same reading from the Jewish Bible

And where the reading referred to Zachariah, I would include the passage from the Quran

Splicing readings from the three Holy Books together,

I was able to tell the same story through three different faith traditions

I was excited by the exercise but my pupils were less so

Perhaps the texts were just too much for the children at the tender age of just thirteen or fourteen

However, I wanted to highlight the similarities between our three faiths

And explore what implications that might have for our understanding of the Bible

The first thing to note however is that all three faiths draw very different conclusions

From a Christian perspective

The Bible tells the story of a disaster through the fall of Adam followed by the rescue mission in the form of Jesus Christ

All the while, foretold by the prophets

However, if you are a Jew, it is not about a rescue mission but more about providential guidance

Divine leadership and guidance through the winding paths of history to date

And whilst Muslims believe that God had previously revealed himself to the earlier prophets of the Jews and Christians

They believe that Islam is the perfection of the religion first revealed to Abraham

To a Muslim, both Christians and Jews have therefore strayed from God’s path but they still held in high esteem as “People of the Book”

What are we to make of these three interpretations on Bible Sunday?

The question I sometimes ask is, what faith would I profess had I been born in Jerusalem or Saudi Arabia?

Would I now be a practising Jew or Muslim?

Or, alternatively, if I had given all three faiths an equal chance, which faith would I have settled on?

Thirdly, does one faith exclude the other or is the logos at work in all three?

These are, of course, enormous questions,

But I think the questions should instil some humility in us and possibly shape our attitude to other Abrahamic faiths

Perhaps our shared religious heritage could lead us to different conclusion instead?

Rather than being enemies, are we not, instead all part of the same family?

On this Bible Sunday, of course, I want to stress the centrality of our Book to our Christian faith

But at a time when, once again, relations are strained

Given our common Abrahamic heritage, can we too not extend the hand of friendship to our friends, including Mousa and Isa?