Searching for the Easter message.

Signpost for Sunday 1 April, 2018 (Easter Sunday): Isa 25:6-9; Ps 118:1-2,14-24; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8.

This Easter I have been thinking about the many people who simply find understanding Jesus’s death too hard. But what if we focused more on Easter as a celebration of Jesus’s life, as we do when we hold a funeral for our loved ones?

To my mind the readings we have are not so much about a joyous resurrection, they are stories about grief and confusion. Where has the body gone? Did Mary Magdalene really see an angel and a ghost? What should the disciples do next?

Even the instructions given by Mark’s angel on the day are not followed (Mark 16:7). In Mark the disciples don’t all go off to Galilee where Jesus says he will meet them. (There’s nothing about it in the verses that most Bible translations miss out either.) In John and Luke they stay in Jerusalem. Only Matthew sends the disciples to Galilee, but he’s just adding a nice round end to the story he took from Mark. So there’s even confusion for us.

And then there’s the obvious grief that pervades Easter for his followers. For me, the most moving story of Easter Day is that told by John, when Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for the gardener. I can hear her heart breaking as I read that passage.

And then I was reading an article the other day (it has nothing to do with these readings) and I came across this quote: “Grief happens when we are losing love and it liberates us to feel it fully… Once you feel love, you can be more courageous and make more radical choices.” I remember, too, the unfathomable depth of grief I have experienced when members of my family and some of my friends died.

Whatever you believe to be the truth of the resurrection story, it is certain that losing Jesus, whom they loved so much, made him come alive in the hearts of the disciples. And in the weeks and years that followed they became courageous and made radical choices. It’s also true that Christ is alive in the hearts of millions of people around the world today. For me, that is true resurrection.

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

One way to summarise the message Jesus preached during his life on earth 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.’a

I often find loving my neighbour is hard to do. But it’s easier than trying to persuade people that a cruelly murdered man died and came back to life as a ghost that haunts everyone on earth forever.

If we keep trying to love our neighbours I suspect that’s the only way to make Easter mean more than chocolate eggs and bunny rabbits for most people these days.

Paul

aSearching for the Real Jesus’, Geta Vermes, 2009.

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A dark day and a naked truth.

Signpost for Holy Saturday/Easter Saturday, 31.3.2018: Job 14:1-14 or Lam 3:1-9,19-24; Ps 31:1-4,15-16; 1 Pet 4:1-8; Matt 27:57-66 or John 19:38-42.

The picture in 1 Peter 3.19-20 and 4.6. has Jesus descending into Sheol and preaching to the worst people who ever lived  –  those who would not listen to Noah.   The idea that Noah preached unsuccessfully is not found in Genesis, but was well established in popular culture, and probably the subject of “midrash”, the embroidered stories so loved by the rabbis. That those in Sheol were very wicked is found also in the Book of Enoch.

The idea of the Descent into Sheol is referred to in other New Testament writings. In Phil 2.10 we have “and under the earth”. In Ephesians 4.9 “he had also descended into the lowest parts of the earth”. And in Revelation 1.18 we find “I have the keys of death and Hades”.  It would seem that those midrash stories shaped the early church’s thinking more than did the strictly literal memory of Genesis.

We also need to remember what state Jesus is in at the ‘time’ of his descent.   We know about the pain of the nails and the suffocation of the dead weight hanging there; but we must also remember that being hung on a tree placed one outside the commonwealth of Israel.  Deuteronomy 21. 23.

Another factor is that of nakedness. The loin cloth that we see on all those crucifixes is not historic. There was great shame for a Jew to be strung up naked in public. The Gospels also suggest (to varying degrees) that Jesus is abandoned in this experience. The Gospel of John places Apostle John and Mary and two other women close enough to speak to, but the other three Gospels all put them “at a distance”.

At the heart of all preaching is (or should be) the desire to grow the love of the assembled for God, themselves and those around them (the Church and the world).  The descent into Hell is a very poignant reminder of the costliness of love. And it brings out the need for that love to be active, seeking the lost, meeting the deepest needs.

We are not told the results of that visit. There is no boast of so many converts of decisions made. That is not the point of love.

Andrew

P.S. I had better come clean. Most of the technical stuff above comes from work I was required to do fifty years ago at Theological Hall. And the last two paragraphs are the basis for a sermon that began then, and which has flourished off and on ever since.

 

Welcome to the family.

(Here’s the first ever of our Easter three-day Signposts. I will post one a day on the day before each is commenting on. George, Andrew and I have written these Signposts without conferring, by the way. Here’s your first edition.)

Signpost for Good Friday, 30 March 2018: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; John 18:1-19:42.

The gospel reading is long and it is not possible to do justice to the whole thing in a few words, so I have chosen to think about a very short segment. It is one of the seven words from the cross.

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

The beginning of the statement to his mother, Woman, was a respectful form of address, more like the word Madam, and it continues with what may seem to be a strange directive, to look at the disciple Jesus loved as her son. Why would Jesus do that? Jesus is known to have had four brothers, and the family was well known in Nazareth: the people in the synagogue surprised by the words and actions of Jesus, had said:

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?

Earlier in John’s gospel, we learn that even his own brothers did not believe in him, so, while they were not exactly close, they were still family. But they were not there, and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, apparently had a home in Jerusalem. And John accepted the responsibility that Jesus gave him, and took her into his home as a mother to his family.

Perhaps, even at this dark time in his life, when the future seemed impossibly dark, and there was no way to envisage what lay ahead, he had a remembered something that Jesus had said the night before which suggested that they could still be disciples, even if he were gone. They could try to live in the way that he had taught them:

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

George

Crowd sourcing in Jerusalem.

Signpost for Sunday 25 March, 2018 (6th Sunday in Lent: Palm Sunday): Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16; Ps 118:1-2,19-29

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, estimated that up to two and quarter million people visited Jerusalem during the Passover festival. Some scholars dispute that figure but most agree that at Passover the number of people in Jerusalem was four times its normal population.

When I came to this week’s well-known reading (Mark or John), those figures came to mind again. It made we wonder about whether or not we really know how this last week of Yeshua’s life on earth started, and what might be important about the actual events as far as we can work out two thousand years later.

Yeshua’s entry into Jerusalem is recounted in all four gospels. Mark, Matthew and Luke all tell the story of him telling a couple of his disciples that they will find a colt tethered and waiting, which adds to the drama. John merely writes ‘Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.’

Now have a look at what each of them says about the crowd that waived their palm leaves as Jesus road in:

John says the ‘great crowd that had come to the Passover… took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him’.

Matthew says, ‘A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road’.

Mark says ‘many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields’.

My guess is that many of us read this as if Jesus was welcomed by most of the people in Jerusalem at the time. And that would certainly have spooked the Roman occupying forces.

But I think he wouldn’t have been welcomed by most of the people in Jerusalem at the time. The crowd was mostly likely a small crowd, made up of his disciples and others who had begun to follow him in the provinces.

In fact, Luke’s version goes like this: ‘‘As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

It’s not the crowd shouting Jesus’s praises. The crowd don’t recognise him for who he is, messiah or rebel, and they’d have been pretty terrified if they had.

After all, there were two processions into Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Jesus was approaching Jerusalem from Bethany and Bethphage in the east. The Roman army was marching in from the west, to maintain order over a population that had suddenly grown fourfold, and was there to celebrate its liberation from a conquering power (Pharaoh in Egypt).

There’s no doubt then that the procession of the Roman army would have been pretty darn scary: thousands of soldiers marching, with Legionnaires on horseback, Roman eagles all over the show, armour clanking, and drums beating.

Symbolically, it’s often said that the Jesus came in peace and the Romans came in war. Symbolically that’s true. Horses versus donkeys and all that. But I suggest Jesus didn’t arrive in the city to be greeted as any kind of national rebel, nor was he ever mistaken for one. Not by the Romans or the Jews themselves.

Let’s remember what Yeshua did as soon as he hopped off his donkey. He went straight to the Temple, and that’s where the trouble started. It was people’s relationship with God that bothered Jesus, not their relationship with Rome.

Paul

P.S. Happy nearly end of Lent. Here comes the chocolate. But there are also some extra Signposts coming your way. Andrew has encouraged we Signposters to celebrate Easter by writing a Good Friday Signpost, an Easter Saturday Signpost and an Easter Day Signpost. So George will kick off on Good Friday, followed by Andrew and myself.

Doctor doesn’t always know best.

Signpost for Sunday 18 March, 2018 (Fifth Sunday in Lent): Jer 31. 31-34; Ps 51. 1-12; (or Ps 119. 1-16); Heb 5. 5-10; Jn 12. 20-23.

The passage from Jeremiah is full of hope for the future, even as the prophet’s country is sliding into chaos. The ‘new covenant’ will replace the old one of law with an internal understanding of the will of God. We looked at “Covenant “a few weeks ago.

Psalm 51 is sub-titled “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” It reminds us that the Law has much to do with sin and repentance. It also shows, in the part we do not read this Sunday, that restoration of the sinner to God is primarily a ritual matter, so that there might be worthy worship.

Psalm 119 features a type of poetry; each group consists of eight lines beginning with one letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Verses 1 – 8 begin with aleph, verses 9 – 16 begin with beth; and so on to section 22  –  tau  –  at the end of the Psalm. Evidence of this is completely missing in my NRSV; fortunately I have kept an old AV out of antiquarian interest.

I came across Psalm 119 in peculiar circumstances recently. At my daughter’s graduation ceremony, one of the other people graduating was a Ph.D. and her thesis was summarised in the programme with the other Ph.D.’s. “A Christian reading of Psalm 119.  An exploration of Torah as God’s self-revelation using a Trinitarian hermeneutic.”  I don’t know anything about the circumstances of the origin of the Psalm, though I am confident that it was not written by David, but it was not a Christian document, and it was penned long before the church thought about what was meant by Trinitarian. For me this is false exegesis and does despite to the original intention of the Psalmist.

Melchizedek seems to be important to the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, whoever that was. He (she?) refers to Melchizedek by name eight times and discusses him extensively in chapters 5 to 7. The origin of this name is found in Genesis 14:18.

Surely the Gospel will be the reading on which most sermons will be preached this Sunday. (I am assuming that preaching is still mostly done on the basis of lections, even if exegesis is a dying art) I did preach on Jeremiah once in my first parish, but even then it could just as easily been on John. This Sunday is also called Passion Sunday, as John goes to the heart of the Gospel in speaking of the coming death of Jesus, and the way disciples are destined to follow him. But more on this subject in Holy Week.

Andrew

It’s your choice.

Signpost for Sunday 18 March, 2018 (Fifth Sunday in Lent): Exodus 2:1-10 or 1 Samuel 1:20-28; 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 or Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:33-35 or John 19:25-27

We can think of Lent as a time to give up something. Often, if we do this it could be a luxury:- chocolate, red wine: or do we think of these as absolute necessities? Perhaps we think in terms of a fast: but one of the important thing about a fast is that it comes to an end. One of the other possibilities in Lent is that we can make choices. I do not suppose that the creators of the lectionary had that in mind when they gave us the choices between the readings for this day, but nevertheless the readings from Exodus, Samuel, Luke and John are about significant choices that women made concerning their sons.

The mother of Moses chose to avoid the edict of the Pharaoh, which required all male children of the people of Israel to be killed, by placing him in a basket and leaving him beside the Nile. He was found and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. His mother, employed as his nurse, gave him the name Moses, and then he grew up in an environment which offered both education and responsibility. Eventually, he became the leader who took the people of Israel out of Egypt, and the person whose name was given to the laws given by God to the people. The first five books of the bible are often called the books of Moses.

Hannah prayed for a son, and promised to give him away to serve in the shrine at Shiloh. She chose to keep her promise, and her son Samuel became one of the great prophets of Israel. His name is given to two books, plainly not written by him but written about what he did.

Mary chose to agree to bear a son, not knowing the full consequences, and she saw her son crucified.

How should we think of these choices? Perhaps it is appropriate to think of them as decisions to relinquish all attempts to control the future of someone who was precious to them.

If we give up chocolate during Lent we can start using it again at Easter.

However, thinking about the women we read of, if we were to really give up something for Lent then perhaps we should be thinking in terms of relinquishing control over it for the sake of someone else. If we do that then we then have to ask ourselves if it is reasonable to make an attempt to regain control after Easter.

George

The whipping boy.

Signpost for 4 March, 2018, 3rd Sunday in Lent: Exodus 20:1-17; Ps 19; 1 Cor 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

I often wish someone in church would point out the link between the readings as they are read out and not just leave dimwits like me to work it out, because of course I don’t work it out while I’m listening. So for my own benefit, if no-one else’s that’s usually where I start when it’s my turn to write a Signpost.

This week it’s easy. Exodus begins with YHWY reminding the Jews that he brought them out of slavery (The Passover) and then laying down God’s law, as it were. John shows Jesus at the feast of Passover ‘overthrowing man’s corruption of God’s law.

Psalm 19 affirms that God is not in the Temple: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  And the law of the Lord is perfect not the human version of the law of the Lord. (And by the way, Plus Psalm 19:14 ends with the words many preachers use to begin their sermons: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”)

Then Corinthians repeats the message that God isn’t in the least bit interested with what humans think is powerful and strong (e.g. The Temple, as far as today’s reading are concerned).

So there you have the links, neat and tidy, all ready for the Gospel to tell us John’s version of Jesus cleansing the Temple.

Except that John’s version of this episode (rather than Matthew 21:12 or Mark 11:15-18 or

Luke 19:45-48) is the most powerful and the least chronological. Yes, we’re all getting ready for Easter in a few weeks, and that’s exactly where Matthew, Mark and Luke place the story – just before Jesus arrest and trial. But the author of John makes this incident the second thing he tells us about Yeshua’s adventures – straight after the wedding at Cana.

Some scholars say that John is keen to show us that Jesus sets out to upset not just the tables but the whole idea of who’s in charge, from the beginning. And that seems to make sense.

Especially as last time I wrote anything about this episode I mentioned how it could be interpreted as Jesus having a real go at the first century version of what we would call ‘the big banks’ that caused the global financial crisis of 2008.

This week I discovered that a one day stay in Jerusalem during one of the three major festivals could cost the equivalent of somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000 US dollars in today’s money*. And that Josephus estimated that up to 2.25 million people visited Jerusalem during Passover. Do the math, as they say, and that adds up to $7,875,000,000 according to my i-Calculator. And all that is before we talk about how inflated the prices were for a dove, a pigeon or any other ‘offering’. No wonder Yeshua made a whip out of cords and lashed out. No wonder he was in real trouble after that.

Paul