Just add water.

Signpost For Sunday 18th. February, 2018 (First Sunday in Lent): Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15.

There is in inter-generational story in my family which may provide a little amusement, so I will start off with it. My grandfather was a deputy mine manager of a large coal mine in the West Midlands of England. He told me that one day the mine manager gave instructions that there should be “only a few men down the mine”. Later, when he asked how many men were actually underground my grandfather’s answer was that there were two hundred men in the mine, which was significantly less than the usual number. The manager said, “You should know better than that. It’s in the Scriptures: first Peter.” This was a reference to a phrase in our reading from the epistle reading: few, that is eight.

There is no doubt in my mind that my grandfather was perfectly aware of the biblical reference, and also that he would never have used it himself in that particularly literal manner, especially since it comes from a passage dealing with symbols. In his typical fashion he told this story about himself in order to make me think.

But why would Peter be writing about Noah in the context of a discussion of suffering, both of Christ himself and, earlier, of Christians? He was describing baptism as being a statement that the person baptised was publicly making an appeal to God for a clear conscience. The baptism itself was also a symbol of death and resurrection, with a new start. Noah was in the position that a catastrophe, in which he lost his home, his friends, but not the family which accompanied him, were given a new beginning, a new covenant with God. They were given the new start as a consequence both of faith and of loss, but the new start obviously involved a new life, in a changed environment.

If we use this idea as a symbol of baptism we can see that commitment to Christ does not allow us to avoid suffering and loss, but it does allow us to ride it out, with a new covenant and a new way of life.

George

 

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It’s all a bit touchy-feely, when you think about it.

Signpost for Sunday 11 February, 2018: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Ps 30; 1 Cor 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45.*

Here we go with that sneaky old lectionary trick: an Old Testament story that mirrors the Gospel reading. Yes, this week it’s old school leper healing and leper healing with a difference.

Once again it’s not really the miracle that matters so much as how these two writers tell their stories of healing. And it’s not the similarities that are important, it’s the differences. It’s not always the obvious differences either. Naaman is rich and powerful; the leper in Mark’s story is a complete unknown. Doesn’t matter. What seems to me to matter is the way Elisha and Yeshua go about healing their respective lepers.

 “Elisha sent a messenger to him [Naaman], saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” (2 Kings 5:10)

“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him…” (Mark 1:40)

Spot the difference? Jesus reaches out and actually touches the leper. Elisha doesn’t even  come out of his tent. He doesn’t even speak to Naaman himself. I don’t think this is about the difference in character between a compassionate Yeshua and a rather stern and standoffish Elisha. I think it’s Mark showing us two things.

The first is that the audience for both stories would know that a leper’s touch would cause both Elisha and Jesus to become ‘unclean’ themselves.

The second is that it is Yeshua’s touch that makes the leper clean, and that’s a big deal (not just from the miracle/healing point of view) but because Yeshua is doing something no one would have dared do in the past. When the leper himself says, “If you choose, you can make me clean,” the last thing he expects Yeshua to do is reach out and actually touch him. That leper would have known that Elisha had healed a leper without moving a muscle. Who on earth in those days wasn’t afraid to touch a leper? No wonder this the ex-leper can’t help but disobey Yeshua’s stern warning to tell no-one about what’s happened.

I reckon that leper must have felt just like the psalmist, whoever he was, when he wrote Psalm 30:1112: You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.”

Paul

* Apologies to any northern hemisphere readers. I think your lectionary readings this week may be totally different from ours down-under.

 

 

 

Don’t blame it on the mother-in-law.

Signpost for Sunday 4 February, 2018: Isa 40:21-31; Ps 147:1-11,20c; 1 Cor 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39.

It occurred to me that the verses from Isaiah, the Psalm and the verses from 1 Corinthians seem to form a frame around the pictures that Mark’s gospel presents us with this week. I see it this way: the frame is made up of God’s power to renew, to heal, to lift up, to not faint or grow weary, and Paul’s declaration that the gospel is not a so much a private gift as a public good.

In fact the reading from Mark starts off in a private home, but ends with Jesus going throughout Galilee preaching to as many people as he can. To the public at large, you might say.

This mother-in-law story, unlike many modern ones, is not remotely amusing, though. Instead it’s sets the scene for the way the larger story unfolds in Mark’s version.

Jesus has just left the synagogue and gone straight Jesus to Simon and Andrew’s house. He walks in and the first thing he does is take Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and immediately the fever leaves her. This isn’t just another miracle, it’s the first instance of Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath. When we read the story we focus on the mother- in-law getting better. But any first century Jew would spot that it’s still the Sabbath when this occurs. We don’t realise how serious a matter this is until Mark 3:1-7, when Jesus heals someone publicly on the Sabbath, which causes the Pharisees and Herodians to conspire against him.

That’s why Mark makes a point of telling us in verse 32 that a crowd of people brought sick people and possessed people to be healed in the evening, at sundown. Sundown is the end of the Sabbath day as far as the Jews were concerned. So the people know the rules, they wouldn’t expect Jesus to heal anyone on the Sabbath.

The next day what happens? Another crowd of locals with sick and crazy friends turns up and Jesus is nowhere to be seen. If you’d been one of the people in that crowd imagine how devastated you would be. We know the story too well to think about that these days. We all know Jesus is going to go off round Galilee and will eventually arrive in Jerusalem. But the people of Capernaum didn’t. The point seems to be though, that just as it has always been – the Gospel, the good news, can’t just apply to a few people. Otherwise it’s not quite such good news.

Paul

 

 

 

Roast lamb or roast goat?

Signpost for Sunday 26 November, 2017 (the feast of Christ the King): Ezek 34:11-16, 20-24;

Ps 100 or 95:1-7a; Eph 1:15-23; Matt 25:31-46.

Before we have a look at this week’s readings it’s worth exploring the feast of Christ the King, because, as we all know, Jesus enjoyed a good meal.

As I discovered almost five years ago to the day, the Feast of Christ the King, though, has as much to do with world history as it does with Jesus’s title, King of kings (Rev 19:16). It didn’t exist before 1925, and there was good reason why the then Pope, Pius IX decided a new feast was called for. It was a mere seven years after the end of the First World War and in its devastating wake, most people were far more interested in nationalism and secularism than they were in religion. Pius XI decided people needed to be reminded who is the ruler of all kings and kaisers on earth (Rev 1:5). Despite the entrée of the feast occurring before another world war broke out, it wasn’t until 1969 that Pope Paul VI established the feast as an annual occurrence that should take place on the last Sunday in the liturgical year. Maybe the swinging sixties brought that on, who knows.

Anyway, here we are on the last Sunday in the 2017 liturgical year, with one of the most famous of passages from Matthew, which does indeed seem to echo exactly what Pius XI had in mind.

I wonder though what most people think when they hear this reading in church. Do they struggle with the idea that here is a vision of the end of times? If you are interested in the question of when Jesus is coming again, I like this answer from John Petty: “Jesus never left, has been here all along, and is present right now in the little, the least, the lone, and the lost.”

Or are you like me and you get a bit anxious because although I’d like to be sheep I suspect I am a goat? No help from Matthew here, he seems to be saying that whichever you are you’ll be surprised at your fate.

I’ve no idea, except to say that I tend to think that anyone who is convinced they are a sheep, is probably a goat, and anyone who is convinced they are a goat, is almost certainly rather sheepish.

Paul

P.S. This is our last Signpost for 2017. Enormous thanks to you all for reading, and tremendous gratitude to Andrew, George and Shelia for joining me at the Signpost each week. We will be back, God willing, in February 2018. Love and peace till then, and beyond.

What choice do we have?

Signpost 19th November, 2017: Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30.

The parable of the talents, in Matthew, according to a commentary on my shelf, is one of three parables of judgement.  The message of the parable seems to be interpreted in the following way. Jesus was speaking to the people of his time, and letting them know that they had been given something valuable, but were keeping it hidden, and this was an unacceptable attitude, which led inexorably to punishment. Therefore, in a similar way we, who have the good news of Jesus Christ entrusted to us, must not keep it hidden.

The same sort of system of judgement and retribution seems to be working at the beginning of the passage from Judges, where the people again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord… so the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan.

But I wonder if there is something else which is implicit in both the parable and the story from Judges: choices have real consequences.

There is a covenant between Israel and God, and a choice to move away from it had real results, just as a choice to return to it had real results.

In the parable the servants were entrusted with something valuable, to use it for its owner. The choices they made had results, they were not protected from the consequences of their own decisions.

Archbishop Rowan Williams made the point that God loves us enough to allow our choices to have real results.

George

It’s about time.

Signpost for Sunday 12 November, 2017: Josh 24:1-3a,14-25; Ps 78:1-7; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Matt 25:1-13.

I can’t say that Matthew 25: 1-13 is one of my favourite passages. The wise virgins seem like a bunch of meanies to me. Won’t share their oil, suggest the others go all the way to the market in the middle of the night to buy more. And then we have the lord of the wedding (Who he? Bride’s father? The groom?) saying. “Too late, you missed the bus and anyway I don’t think you’re on the guest list, actually.”

What a jolly tale. But that’s my problem of course it’s not a tale at all, it’s the last of a series of pictures that Mathew paints (these are a Matthew only verses) about people who arrive late.

In the two that precede this reading – the parable of the King’s Son’s wedding (22: 1-14), and the parable of the faithful servant and the unfaithful servant (24: 45-51) – it’s a similar situation; the King or lord is delayed somehow and that’s when things go wrong, people are tempted to behave badly.

But in our reading, the poor foolish virgins don’t behave badly at all, they just run out of oil. Then, what seems like a bunch of hoity-toity women get one over on them.

And I know that’s not what Matthew wants us to think at, it’s just me. So, I went in search of a better way of looking at it. Here’s what I found.

Apparently, if I could read first century Greek, I’d have spotted that the word translated as ‘delayed’ is the Greek word, chronizontos.  Which unsurprisingly has its roots in chronos, one of two Greek words for “time.” The other Greek word for time is kairos.  The difference is that Chronizontos means ordinary chronological time, and Kairos means special time or even “God’s time.”

So what, you might say. Well one way of looking at it is that the five foolish virgins’ big mistake that they live by the ways of this world, in chonological time. Like most us they can’t work out what’s happened to the groom. No doubt they thought. “What’s keeping him?”

But the five wise virgins, don’t ask themselves that, they don’t fall asleep because they trust that he will turn up as he said he would. They are wise because theirs is the wisdom of trusting in God’s timing and God’s way of doing things.

And that’s what so many of us find hard to do – trust in God in spite of God’s apparent absence from time to time.

Paul

Practice doesn’t make perfect.

Signpost for Sunday 5 November, 2017: Josh 3:7-17; Ps 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thess 2:9-13; Matt 23:1-12.

I plunged into Joshua this week much as the Jews plunged into the Jordan, with hope and anticipation. But all that resonated for me is that here we have a picture of the Jews entering the promised land the same way they left the land of their slavery – with the water being held back for them to cross over. Surely every Jew who heard the stories over the generations would see that connection too.

Then I came to this very well-known passage from Matthew. It all seems pretty straightforward. Some Bibles even title it as “A warning against hypocrisy.” What I did notice though is that in Matthew 23 Jesus moves from being tested by the Pharisees and the Sadducees to pointing out their failings in detail.

In fact, you could almost see Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 as the other side of the Beatitudes coin (Matthew 5:1-12). Doesn’t the behavior of the scribes and the Pharisees that Jesus describes give us a pretty good picture of what an anti-Beatitude lifestyle looks like?

Strange then maybe, that Jesus starts off by telling the people they must be careful to do everything the Pharisees tell them to do. But, of course, that is exactly the point – they do not practise what they preach (Matt 23:3).

Beyond that, I discovered this week that many scholars think that Jesus’ attack on the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 may well reflect a real conflict between Matthew and the rabbis of his own time (near the end of the first century) rather than an historical dispute between Jesus and the Jewish leaders 40 or 50 years earlier. After all, Matthew often writes “their scribes” and “their synagogues” (Matt 7:29, 9:35, 23:34) when he’s talking about the Jews. So, was the Gospel of Matthew written to a church that had once been a part of the synagogue but had then broken with that community? And the break would come about because the new Jewish Christian congregation had begun to include Gentile members.

Paul