Sorry, Janice Joplin. Freedom is not just another word for having nothing left to lose.

Signpost for Sunday September 17th September, 2017: Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35.

The crossing of the Red Sea (the Sea of Reeds) marks the final exodus from Egypt, and the removal of the people from the power of the Pharaoh. The site of this event seems to be in the Bitter Lakes region, just north of Suez. It would appear that strong, dry winds from the deserts in the east can cause both a movement of the water towards the west, and dry the exposed surface. Such an event would allow the people on foot to cross the marshland, while the chariots of the Egyptians would break through the dried surface and literally bog down. Deeper water on either side of the relatively dry path would act as a protection from encirclement, a wall on the right hand and the on left. For my own interest, I tried to find graphical representations of the event. My search was not exhaustive, but I found only modern versions, which depicted the path through the waters as a valley with deep water piled up on either side.

The exodus marks the beginning of a new way of life: no longer in bondage, having a new covenant with God, and learning to live together without masters giving orders. The book of Exodus contains many instructions on how to make this new relationship work properly. In the New Testament, the break with Egypt by this crossing forms one of the images associated with baptism. Living in a family relationship with God and other members of the family is the subject of the parable in Matthew. Sum it up as, If you are given freedom then give it to others.

The passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans gives much the same message. There are a number of parallels we might find between the question which Paul addresses about food offered to idols and modern activities. In all of them I have to remember that, through God’s grace, I have been given freedom, and I cannot deny that same gift to those around me. After all, Christ gave his life to give us life.



Conflict – not something to passed over lightly.

Signpost for Sunday 10 September 2017: Exod 12:1-14; Ps 149; Rom 13:8-14; Matt 18:15-20.

I couldn’t see the link between the first two readings this week. Exodus tells its audience that the Jews are the chosen ones who were rescued from Egypt, and we have here the Passover meal’s origin. All part of the foundation story the Jews passed down the generations.

Then Matthew appears to be telling us how to behave, but actually Matthew puts these words into the mouth of Jesus; yet he mentions in verse 17, members of the Church. There was no Church as far as Jesus is concerned. Matthew has switched to addressing his audience not Jesus’s. Jesus’s audience is clearly stated to be the disciples (Matt 18:1). I don’t know if early Christians all saw themselves as disciples, or is that a more modern view? I suppose we can at least assume that Matthew hoped his 80 AD Jewish Christian audience would spot the reference.

Matthew’s audience would almost certainly have recognised his version of the Hebrew tradition – Deuteronomy 19, Leviticus 19 – as guidelines on how to deal with trouble at t’mill.

The first thing to do is to go and speak to the person directly.  How many times do people not do that when they have a problem with someone? And how many times when people do follow this advice does the problem begin to go away? The answer to both questions is, most of the time.

Interestingly, the process Jesus describes here resembles, and has been a foundation for, our modern practice of “restorative justice,” which focuses less on punishment and more on the restoration of dignity for all concerned.

The New Zealand Justice website, in fact, virtually mirrors Matthew’s version of how to tackle things: “A restorative justice conference is an informal, facilitated meeting between a victim, offender, support people and any other approved people, such as community representatives or interpreters.”

Of course, verse 17 is rather strange. Matthew has Jesus tell us that if the problem can’t be solved then the person who has offended should be treated like a tax collector or a gentile. Tradition has it the Matthew was a tax collector. Maybe tradition is wrong.

Anyway, if we all just did as Paul suggests in Romans verse 8, we obviously wouldn’t have so much trouble at t’mill.

Paul (not the saintly one)

A different kettle of icthus.

Signpost for Sunday Sept 3, 2017: Exodus 3:1-15; Ps 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Rom 12:9-21; Matt 16:21-28.

Funny way to behave. First Jesus tells Simon that he is his rock on which he will build his Church. Then ‘straight after’ he’s saying, “Get behind me, Satan. You are on the side of men, not on the side of God.”

Of course, Jesus isn’t saying any of this, Matthew is, and he hasn’t yet grasped the concept of character. He knows the plot backwards, though. Which is why the other troublesome verse in this passage occurs.

That verse is 28: “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until before they see the Son of man coming into his kingdom.”

What on earth did he mean? We know that didn’t turn out to be the case? Or did it? Matthew, writing in about 80 CE, might have Jesus say these words for a plot reason, not a prophetic one. Read on to Matthew 17: 1-9 and there we have Jesus being transfigured. And before whose very eyes? Peter, James and John – they were among those standing there in verse 28.

What if Matthew had Jesus say these words because he’s telling them something amazing is about to happen, and it’s not resurrection in this case?

After all, the disciples don’t want to believe all that stuff, do they. Surely that’s why Matthew says in verse 21, “…. Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem…” It’s going to take while before they can accept the idea of Jesus dying.

But it’s not just because the disciples are a bit thick or that they love Jesus so much they can’t stand the thought of him being killed. That second bit would obviously be true enough. But again, Matthew is writing at least 50 years after the crucifixion and he’s writing for an audience who were still having trouble coming to terms with the notion of a messiah who wasn’t just murdered but actually crucified.

Matthew might well have Jesus talk about his followers taking up their individual crosses to follow him, and to us it all alludes to the cross of crucifixion. But Church historians tell us that the cross did not become a universal symbol for Christians until the 5th century. It was so hated and feared that early Christians didn’t adopt it. Instead, the second-century Christian, teacher Clement of Alexandria, mentions a dove, a fish, a ship, a lyre, and an anchor as suitable images to be engraved on Christians’ signet-rings or seals.

I wonder if fact that the cross wasn’t the symbol of early Christianity goes some way to explaining why Constantine could so pragmatically later declare the whole Roman Empire Christian. Would Constantine so readily have co-opted a religion whose badge reminded everyone how cruel Romans could be? Dove, ship, lyre, now that might be a different kettle of icthus* altogether.


* It’s Greek for fish and it’s what we call one of these .

The butler did it.

Signpost for Sunday 27 August 2017 (21st Sunday in Ordinary Time): Exodus 1.8 – 2.10; Psalm 124; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20.

I have been trying to imagine the conditions under which the Gospel of Matthew was written. It is part of a tradition, relying greatly on the Gospel of Mark. This dependence suggests it was not written by a disciple who was remembering, but compiled in honour of Matthew.

Secondly, it was most likely written after the fall of Jerusalem, and therefore in another place.  One writer suggests the Roman army discharge settlement of Antioch, and there is something to commend it. This timing also explains the need for Peter to call Jesus the Son of God.

Next, if it follows the destruction of the Temple, it also follows the scattering of the church in Jerusalem. Whereas Paul could go there and submit (in part) to its authority, by this time there was perhaps a vacuum at the top, so to speak.   We hear nothing more of James the brother of Jesus, so can assume his authority is lost.   There is nothing to suggest that Paul ever became an authority figure. So the appeal is to the authority of one of the remaining apostles (or to the memory of such).

The other change at this time is in the relationship with the Synagogue. There is plenty in the Gospels to suggest that relations with those authorities were worsening.  There was a need to counter the exclusion of Christians from the Synagogues, and the language of our reading may reflect that. This may explain the binding and loosening language. To call Jesus Messiah and Son of God certainly throws down the gauntlet in that respect.

We do not have to connect exclusion with the keys. “The famous keys are unlikely to be the keys of the Kingdom’s front door. Rather the picture is of the trusted manager or butler, who has the keys to the master’s store rooms and cupboards – symbols of the responsibilities of faithful disciples within the household of God.” * It is the grounding of the life of the Christian in the intimate relationship with Jesus through the Spirit that gives the ability of share the abundant loving gifts of God with all who need them.

The life we have as Christians (being the Church!) is founded on the rock of faith that is here typified by Peter. Peter is not a gatekeeper grudgingly admitting those he chooses, but a butler generously sharing the goodies that his generous loving master has given to him.


* From With Love to the World, 1990 issue 4.

Real dirt, good dogs and hard graft.

Signpost for Sunday August 20, 2017: Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a,29-32; Matthew 15:10-28.

The reading from Matthew is in the context of a discussion between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. The discussion itself is not included in the reading, but is, I think, a necessary preamble to what Jesus said. The discussion began with a question Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat. The tradition was a requirement imposed, not by hygiene, but by religion as a symbol of cleansing from any ritual impurity that may have been encountered.  There is one statement, (in verse 6) “…for the sake of your tradition you make void the word of God”. The traditions in question surrounded the law as given in the books of Moses and made it more complex, in, this case, associated with ritual purity. Of course, the process of conformity to a complex set of rules reduced the freedom of a single person, but, on the other hand, individuals were able to associate themselves with an identifiable group, and could be excluded from it. This context explains why Jesus began to talk to the crowd about the source of defilement, on how it is a product of the person, rather than the environment. He seems, in the next part of the passage, to be sticking to the traditional view that the word of God is sent to the Jews, not to the so-called Gentile dogs. However, the woman whose daughter was afflicted, aided by desperation and a quick wit, replied that Even the dogs eat what falls from the master’s table. Jesus lifted the affliction.

I have on my bookshelf a book published in 1953 (!). Its title is The Lonely Crowd, and it was written by David Riesman, et al. Although this is rather an old book it may still have something to offer. The authors group societies into three kinds. I have tried to express the ideas in my own words, for a more modern society:

Tradition directed (As it was in the beginning…)

Inner directed (I was brought up to make up my own mind, so…)

Other directed (She has hundreds of followers on Facebook…)

It is difficult to think how such societies could communicate in an effective fashion. Perhaps the image of grafting olives, which crops up in Romans, might help. Paul describes the Gentiles as being grafted into the old olive tree. It was apparently common practice, when an old olive tree ceased to bear well, to take a cutting from a wild tree and graft it into the old tree, thereby invigorating it. A contemporary of the apostle Paul, Columella by name, wrote a book entitled De re rustica in which this process was described. (I have not read the book, merely found a reference to it.)

Is this how we have to get a more vigorous life, by grafting in new ways of thinking?


Luke gets high with Peter, James and John.

Signpost for Sunday 6th August 2017 (The Transfiguration): Dan 7:9-10, 13-14; Ps 97; 2 Pet 1:16-19; Luke 9:28b-36.

It does seem somewhat absurd to me that the Gospel read out in churches this week begins with the words, “Now about eight days after these sayings…” and yet we have not actually heard any of these sayings as part of the service. I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t know the Bible well enough to immediately recall what those sayings are. And let’s face it, how many people bother to go home and look them up? Which leaves most people listening to a story they struggle to believe in literally and can’t quite work out metaphorically.

So, as a special treat, here are three sayings from the ‘eight days before’:

Luke 9:7-9 Now Herod the ruler* heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. 9Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he tried to see him.

Luke 9:18-19 Once when Jesus* was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ 19They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’

Luke 9:20 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’

Is it just me, or does this remind you of those endless trailers that appear on TV telling us what programme is coming up next, so stay tuned for a really exciting episode?

Well, it is an exciting episode in the story Luke is telling his largely gentile audience. Pardon? Yes, here we have an episode that Luke has taken from Mark and slightly altered. The main difference between the two versions being that Peter, James and John see Moses and Elijah actually talking with Jesus, says Luke. It’s all just a vision in Mark’s version.

Most commentators suggest that Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. And their appearance has certainly been signposted in the previous ‘sayings’. But would a mainly gentile audience be quite so aware of the significance of Moses and Elijah, I wonder. Surely, they wouldn’t have been particularly familiar with the Torah.

The key for that audience must have been, as it probably is for us, that we hear God’s voice from heaven saying “Listen to Him!” and don’t worry too much about reading your Bible cover to cover.


Dangers in the text.

Signpost for Sunday, July 30th, 2017: Gen 29: 15-28.  Ps 105: 1-11, 45b. Rom 8; 26-39.  Matt 13: 31-33, 44-52.

A couple of years ago, Marjorie and I inherited a few hundred books from her brother. I have been finding things in our library that I should have read years ago, and am catching up. The one I am on now is “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. It was filmed some time back and is now being issued as a TV series.

Laban asks what Jacob’s wages should be and he ends up married to the two sisters and gets a flock as a bonus. We have usually venerated Jacob as a Patriarch. But we know that Patriarchy is one of the greatest unresolved issues of our times. It is behind the oppression of women, and closely related to racism, colonialism and other oppressions.

We have also to remember that such passages as this from Genesis, and the Psalm which is its response today, are used to justify the last throes of European colonialism  –  Zionism. There was even a Hawke’s Bay Church that protested recently at New Zealand’s efforts in the UN to make Israel be fair to its Arab citizens!

.           .           .           .           .

I was a Methodist from the age of eleven to twenty-five, so it is not surprising that my reaction to Romans 8; 29-30 is very Arminianist.  (I recently found that a nasty war took place in the Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century over this doctrine.)  Not even Karl Barth has reconciled me to the narrower Calvinism. So I have problems with those two verses. Verses 38 and 39 are the real heart of the matter.

.           .           .           .           .

Then there are five parables and a comment. At least this selection avoids the tendency of the Gospel writers to make Parables into allegory. Jesus here is represented as part of the Rabbinic tradition of parable purveyors. We probably go too far if we claim that all the parables in the Gospels are original to Jesus, just as we would probably be wrong to attribute the allegories to him.

If I had to preach on these lections, I would centre on those two verses from Romans, but expand them with the Pearl of Great Price and the Net Full of Fish, symbol of all the nations of the world. The danger of the Romans text alone is to make our appreciation of the love of God self-centred.  “Us” cannot be restricted to  the in-group. The love of God is aimed at the whole world.