Wednesday, October 30, 2013

John Wyclif and Playing with Knives

My father loves working in the kitchen. He always enjoyed dabbling when the opportunity presented itself, but, when my mother started working full-time as a director of children’s ministry in the church where I grew up, Dad started cooking more frequently. At one point, he became the primary chef for the family, and it was my mother’s turn to dabble when the opportunity presented itself.

Whenever they come to visit, my dad likes to cook a meal. He’s a good cook and knows his way around the kitchen. Like me, he’s not very good at keeping things clean, but he can use every pot and pan and utensil available to whip up something pretty decent. One day, he was chopping vegetables with our chef’s knife and remarked how sharp the knife was. It seemed like a nice, polite thing to say to the person whose knives one is using. I thanked him and went on with my evening. I happened to be passing back through the kitchen when he was scraping those vegetables off the cutting board and into a pan, an action he was roughly completing by dragging the blade of my chef’s knife across the surface of the board. “You know,” I said, “that knife won’t be very sharp for long if you keep doing that.”

I said it too sharply (no pun intended). Instincts had taken over. I had reprimanded my father for the way he was treating my knife while he was preparing a meal for my family. He looked at me a somewhat taken aback and apologized. Now, whenever he is in town and is in the kitchen, he goes out of his way to mention again and again how sharp our knives are. They aren’t really that sharp, but I hear what he’s saying.

“The word of God is living and active,” the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “sharper than any two-edge sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” That’s part of the Epistle Lesson for the commemoration of John Wyclif (Hebrews 4:12-16). And, when I read that passage that personifies the “Word of God” and captures that beautiful double-meaning of our faith—that the second person of the Trinity is the same “Word of God” that was spoken into the scriptures and that came incarnate from heaven as Jesus Christ—I ask myself whether God’s word is as sharp today as it once was.

Like a knife or a sword or a scalpel or any other implement, the power and sharpness of the Word of God depends on who is using it and how it’s being used and whether it’s being properly handled. Is it being roughly dragged across a cutting board—has it become a spoon or scraper simply because of the intention of the person who’s holding it? Is it being used to bash someone’s head in—more a blunt club that is wielded in clumsy battle than the delicate instrument it was designed to be? Has it been intentionally dulled so as to be used in a children’s cooking class—left to wear out so no one will cut himself?

John Wyclif lived two-hundred years before Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses on the church house door. He died two-hundred years before Thomas Cranmer wrote the first Book of Common Prayer. Yet Wyclif was committed to some of the same principles that guided the Reformation two centuries after his ministry was over. He argued that in political and financial ways the local church should be governed by its own monarch—in his case the King of England—and not be subject to the pope. He believed that individuals should have a direct and personal relationship with God and not one that needed to be mediated by the church or a priest. He believed that the scriptures should be available to all who could read them, and he translated the Latin bible into English. And it is for this last achievement that he is most often remembered.

What happens when the Word of God is put into the hands of an “ordinary” person? What happens when the institutional church trusts that laypeople have the ability to wield it as powerfully and skillfully as its most celebrated theologians? What happens when a priest looks at his congregation and asks, “What do you think it means?”

The Word of God is in your hands—sometimes literally. That hasn’t always been the case. You don’t have to go to college or seminary to understand it, but you can’t just whip it out once a year and use it to fillet a delicate trout. It takes practice. It takes effort. Read it. Study it. Practice with it. Let it cut you to your core—all the way to joints and marrow. Recognize its power and use it wisely.

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