We can work out out. (Apologies to Lennon and McCartney.)

Signpost for Sunday 19 May 2019: Acts 11:1-18; Ps 148; Rev 21:1-6; John 13:31-35.

What a strange way for a reading from the lectionary to begin: When he had gone out. You’ll be sitting in church. Thinking, who? Or more likely you’ll completely miss that opening sentence.

It’s Judas Escariot who has gone out before Yeshua speaks, and why is this significant? I have no idea, but if I was writing this dramatic scene, would I get Judas out of the way because what Yeshua is about to say might make him think twice about what he’s just popped out to do? Maybe.

This is a crucially dramatic point in John’s version of the story and has become a central part of Christian worship ever since.

First though, Yeshua, lays the ground by calling his close followers his little children and telling them that he won’t be around for ever. I don’t know about you, but whenever I have had to talk with my own children about the fact that I won’t be around for ever, their first response was always, “We don’t want to think about it, Dad.” Now that they are both in their 30s and one is married with children of her own, we can talk about such things as what we need to do in our will, and even advise them they really ought to make a will because they have to think about who’s going to look after the children if something awful happens.

I can imagine, then, how the disciples felt when Jesus says those heart-rending words, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.”

While they are coping with the lumps in their throats, Jesus throws in his most important guideline on how to live in a world without him physically present in it: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

And we know this passage so well that it’s easy to forget a few things. That’s there are only two commandments that really matter. One is from Deuteronomy 6:5 (You shall love the lord, God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.) The other is from Leviticus 19:18: (love your neighbour as yourself).

But hang on, isn’t this new commandment just an echo of Leviticus 19:18? I wonder if the disciples would have been as dumb as I have been all these years. Now I realise what’s so new about this new commandment. What’s new is that Jesus is telling us to love one another, and maybe we tend to think that’s just another way of saying love our neighbours, and personally I think it should include our neighbours. But Jesus doesn’t just want me to love them as well as I love myself, he want me to love them the way he loved his disciples. That’s a much bigger ask. And he really does mean it, because John has him repeat those words again: John 15:12 and 17.

Jesus has just washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:5). I don’t think he wants us to go round washing people’s feet, do you? I think each one of us needs to work out for ourselves exactly how we think Jesus loved his disciples and his neighbours (other people). And then I think that’s how each one of us follows his new commandment.

Paul

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Who does he think he is?

Signpost for Sunday 12 May 2019: Acts 9:36-43; Ps 23; Rev 7:9-17; John 10:22-30.

 I always get a bit annoyed when the Lectionary jumps about, as it has again this week. We’ve been reading about what happened after the crucifixion, and suddenly we’re thrown back into the middle of the story.

We might even be a bit confused because John is the only writer who tells us that Jesus went to Jerusalem twice; this is the first time, not the time just before Passover. Which makes a whole lot of difference to this reading to my way of thinking

Jesus is hanging around in the portico of Solomon. That’s a part of the temple where those who hated the Romans and Herod often went because it was a very old part that predated the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians. And at the “festival of the Dedication”, Hanukkah, it was especially significant because it represented a Judah before occupation.

In other words, just by being there, Jesus is identified with those who resist Rome and Herod. No wonder, you might think, that the Pharisees want to know if Jesus is the actual messiah. Is he, they are asking, the person who will lead the resistance movement to throw out the Romans and their lackeys and restore home rule? Just like Judas Maccabeus and his rebels had when they thrashed, Antiochus, in 164 B.C?

But we know Jesus is no such thing, and the people to whom John is writing know that too. So what’s going on? The verses immediately before John 10:22-30 are all about shepherding, and there’s a lot of sheepish talk in our reading, but that’s not what interested me this time I read it. It’s what follows that’s much more dramatic.

In verse 30 Yeshua utters the startling words, “I and the Father are one”. Immediately after that ‘the Jews who were gathered around’ him picked up stones to stone him to death.

John has those people say, “We are not stoning you for any good work, but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (Verse 33) And then John goes onto to have Yeshua say, “… I said, ‘I am God’s Son’.”(Verse 36).

Now, Yeshua doesn’t say that in any of the other Gospels. So it set me wondering what “I and the Father are one” could mean. Yeshua himself says, in verse 34, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?” He’s quoting Psalm 82 verse 6 which also says, ‘all of you are sons of the Most High.’ Then just after the Jews have got ready to stone him, Yeshua describes himself as ‘one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world’ (John 10:36).

It was such passages of scripture that were used by the early Roman church to declare Jesus both god and man, and to see him quite literally as the son of God.

Rather than arguing about that, I find most helpful Marilynne Robinson’s description of the New Testament as “a story written down in various forms by writers whose purpose was first of all to render the sense of a man of surpassing holiness, whose passage through the world was only understood after his death, to have revealed the way of God to humankind.”

Paul

What shepherds have for breakfast.

Signpost for Sunday 5 May 2019: Acts 9:1-6,(7-20); Ps 30; Rev 5:11-14; John 21:1-19.

 Switching from Luke before Easter to John after Easter has its consequences. One of them is that we conflate the two versions of the story.

Take this week’s reading for example. Jesus turns up and helps Peter and a few others catch nets full and fit to burst with fish . Forget for a minute that this is the risen Jesus and you might also forget that Yeshua had done the same in Luke 5 (1-11). Except in that story the nets did actually burst.

That’s not the point though. The most poignant part of the reading from John comes after Jesus, Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples have had a lovely fishy breakfast.

That’s when Jesus speaks those four little words to Peter, “Do you love me?” And, much to my astonishment anyway, despite the fact that just four days before Peter had denied Yeshua on the night of his arrest, now he is forgiven entirely. Jesus bestows upon him the leadership of all the people who will ‘follow me’ (v19).

But maybe I’ve got it wrong. When I look closely I see that Peter isn’t actually forgiven. He certainly doesn’t say sorry. He doesn’t even ask for forgiveness. And it doesn’t seem to matter at all.

Maybe I have been misreading it all along when I thought Jesus asking, “Do you love me?” three times here was some deliberate reference to Peter’s three denials on the night of Gethsemane. Maybe that’s just some clever literary critical approach.

Because now, when I look, I don’t think that this Jesus is testing Peter and certainly not trying to embarrass him into repentance.

Instead he seems to me to be saying, I know you were frightened to death on that night a few days ago. Weren’t we all? That’s not why I am here. I’m here because I do know everything about you (as Peter himself points out in verse 17), I know exactly who you are. And you are exactly the person I need to be the shepherd I once was.

Peter is only human, after all, just like you and me.

Paul

 

Hello. Sorry, but I meant more than nice to meet you.

Signpost for Sunday 28 April 2019: Acts 5:27-32; Ps 118:14-29 or Ps 150; Rev 1:4-8; John 20:19-31.

“Shalom Aleichem,” Jesus says to the disciples in this week’s reading from John. He could just as easily have said. “ Asalaam a’alaykum.” Peace be with you. Of course he didn’t say either because I don’t know what that is in Aramaic – the language we believe Yeshua spoke.

Was he just being polite? Was it just a traditional greeting? Is that all it is today? ‘Peace be with you’ has taken on a new meaning since the events of March 15 in New Zealand. Also since the events of April 21 in Sri Lanka.

I was thinking this week how hollow ‘hello’ and ‘hi ‘and ‘G’day’ seem as greetings by comparison. I wonder if just about everyone in the world we live in would be better served by their own language’s version of ‘peace be with you’ these days.

May be I’m wrong but I would like to think that a greeting could set the tone for everything that follows. That it should be heart-felt, not just a convention.

If that was in any way true, then in this week’s reading we might not think so badly of Thomas.

Maybe the Jesus in this story is not reproaching Thomas (John:20:29). After all, no-one in that room had believed in his resurrection without actually seeing him first. The disciples had dismissed Mary Magdelene’s report of meeting the risen Christ as an idle tale in Luke. Until he turned up the week before, had any of them shown any sign of realising that Jesus was actually risen from the dead? No.

And why would they? Why indeed would Thomas? I reckon I would almost certainly have reacted exactly as Thomas did if my best friends had told me they had seen someone alive that I knew was dead. And I am not at all sure Jesus has a problem with that. When he comes back to visit this second time, maybe it’s specifically so that Thomas can have the benefit of proof.

Or is it that Jesus doesn’t want anyone to miss out? If you’re not there when he calls, he’ll come back later. The other thing, I think, is that many of us are just like Thomas: we can’t believe without something more than the story we’re being told.

For many people that something more comes from doubting. Not dismissing, but doubting. Doubt is a good thing, not a bad thing. Doubt makes you question something. It also makes you look for an answer.

Paul

 

An idle tale.

Signpost for Sunday 21 April (Easter Sunday) 2019: Acts 10:34-43* or Isa 65:17-25; Ps 118:1-2,14-24; 1 Cor 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12.

Too many readings to choose from and the Lectionary says you’ll have to listen to Acts 10:34-43, whether you want to or not.

But I’m not a slave to the Lectionary so I’d rather just think about Luke 24:1-12 because we’ve been following Luke’s version of this story for the last few weeks. Just as Theophilus has.

What we find in Luke’s account is a lot of people who are perplexed.

Firstly, quite a few women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them) and then the disciples themselves. Even Peter can’t work out what’s actually happened and wanders off home amazed (verse 12).

Just like everybody sitting in church this weekend, they are told what’s it’s all about. But, just like most people in the world today, they can’t believe it can be true.

Let’s be honest, it’s no wonder so many people do exactly what the disciples first did and dismiss it as an idle tale.

It seems to me that Jesus’s essential message is more important than which of the Gospel stories about his resurrection is most accurate or even true.

One way to summarise that message is this: ‘God is our Heavenly Father, which gives us all a unique dignity as children of God; so the way to turn our lives into ones of worship is through trust. Let’s not put that off till tomorrow because life is short; let’s delight in and strive to make better the here and now. Because the only way to truly express the love of God for each one of us is through the love of our neighbour.’

I read those words a few years ago in ‘Searching for the Real Jesus’, by Geta Vermes. I still think they make a lot of sense.

Showing genuine love for our neighbour has been something most people in New Zealand have been doing more of recently, since what happened in Christchurch on March 15.

So here’s my prayer for this Easter, that we see a genuine resurrection of that kind of behaviour all over the world. And that from the ashes of Nôtre Dame, something more than just a splendid building rises again.

Paul

Don’t pin the tale on the donkey.

Signpost for Sunday 14 April (Palm Sunday) 2019: Luke 19:28-40; Ps 118:1-2,19-29.

I wonder what really happened on that day in about 30 CE that we now know as Palm Sunday. Something almost certainly did occur, because all four gospels retell whatever event it was. But interestingly, it wasn’t all donkeys, palms and crowds proclaiming Yeshua from Gaililee as coming in the name of the Lord.

In Mark (11:1-10) the disciples are sent to find a colt that has never been ridden, not a donkey. The crowds go ahead and it’s those who followed (the disciples) shouting ‘Blessed is he who comes on the name of the Lord.’ No mention of stones crying out. Cloaks are strewn and branches are cut down – no palms, just leafy branches

In Matthew (21:1-9) the disciples are sent to find a donkey and its colt, crowds go ahead and those who followed (the disciples) are shouting ‘Blessed is he who comes on the name of the Lord.’ No mention of stones crying out. Cloaks are strewn and branches are cut down – no palms, just leafy branches.

In Luke (19:28-40)  the disciples are sent to find, again, a young horse – a colt that has never been ridden. This time the crowds and the disciples together shout ‘Blessed is he who comes on the name of the Lord’ and the stones would cry out if the Pharisees manage to quell the noise. But no leafy branches at all.

In John (12:12-15) there’s no hocus pokus about knowing where a ride will be waiting. Yeshua finds a young donkey himself and sits on it of his own accord. The crowds are shouting (not the disciples), there’s no mention of stones crying out. But there are, at last, palm trees.

And that’s how we get to our modern tradition of Palm Sunday. We may have thought we know how it happened, but we don’t really. Although something definitely did, and it was a massive contrast to another ‘procession’ that must have taken place no more than a few days earlier, as someone else arrived in Jerusalem for that Passover in about 30 AD.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect governing Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered the city leading a vast column of soldiers. There would have been no cloaks or leafy branches. But there would have been the deafening din of drums and the rhythmic, eerie crunch of hundreds of marching military feet. There might even have been rent-a-crowd too. Citizens of Jerusalem forced to cheer at the side of the road. Or were they just silent, intimidated, resentful?

Jerusalem at Passover was a tinder box of emotion and a very likely trouble spot as far as the Romans were concerned. They and their puppet Jewish leaders would have been jumpy to say the least. Pretty soon they are going to hear about some Galilean bloke overturning tables and causing a big disturbance at the entrance to the Temple.

Can’t be having that, can they.

Paul

 

 

A hairy tale, but probably true.

Signpost for Sunday 7 April 2019 (Passion Sunday): Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8.

The gospels give us three nards, two feet, two heads and one Mary. All four gospels include a version of this anointing story.  Mark (14:3-9) writes that Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, when a woman anointed his head with nard. Matthew (26:6-13) says pretty much the same thing.

Luke, is the odd one out. He writes (7:36-50) that Yeshua was dining out in Simon, the Pharisee’s house. The unnamed woman this time, “had been a sinner in the city”. Is that a euphemism for working in the red light area, I wonder? She comes into the house carrying an alabaster flask of ointment. It’s not named as nard (but we do know that nard was kept in alabaster jars to retain its aroma).The woman cries on Jesus’ feet, wipes them with her hair, then anoints his feet with the ointment.

What does the author of John do with this story? He places the timing just before Passover; he takes us to the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus and gives Mary the rather sticky task of anointing Yeshua’s feet with nard and wiping it away with her hair.

You can see how over the centuries too many people have concluded that Mary was a prostitute. She wasn’t. She might not even have been the person who actually anointed Jesus at all, since the first three gospels don’t name her.

My guess is that the only thing we can be pretty certain about is that at some time before his eventual crucifixion a woman anointed Yeshua, and she appears to have done that off her own bat.

In the old testament it’s always prophets who anointed people, but these women are not prophets nor do they mention being given any instruction by YHWH to go splash out on a wildly expensive jar of nard.

On the other hand, we know both men and women used nard to perfume their bodies. (Achilles slaps it on Patroclus in Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad for one thing.)

So I am just wondering really if there was a woman around at the time who felt deep in her heart that Yeshua was the most compassionate and charismatic healer and ‘prophet’ she had ever come across. So she went and got the most expensive perfume she owned, found out where he was and decided to let him know that she at least recognised him as someone very special indeed. No matter what the Pharisees or anybody else said about him.

My favourite part of John’s version of the story is verse 3: ‘And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ I like to think that fragrance did more than fill the house. Do we get a hint of it sometimes, when ordinary people do extraordinarily compassionate things for each other?

Paul