Listen up.

Signpost for Sunday June 4, 2017 (Pentecost): Numbers 11:24-30; Ps 104:24-34,35b; 1Cor 12:3b-13; Acts 2:1-21.

Some people might think this Sunday is ‘speaking-in-tongues-Sunday’. They might see the disciples as specially chosen people who were filled with the spirit for the first time and the result is this amazing event. I’ve certainly been in churches where that’s very much the impression I and the rest of the congregation got. Worse, I’ve sometimes been made to feel that speaking in tongues is the best sign that you have received the holy spirit. But even reading this passage as any kind of miracle is utterly misleading.

Those ways of seeing the passage leave people feeling excluded from a special group. Yet the whole point of Luke’s description of Pentecost is that there is no special group. Anyone and everyone can speak and hear the word of God. Hearing it is as important as speaking it.

The truth of this story is not about tongues of flame or whether the disciples really spoke in lots of different languages. It’s about the fact that the holy spirit is the means by which God communicates with all people, no matter where or who they are. It’s about inclusion, the beginning of the spreading of the word beyond Jerusalem, beyond Israel, beyond the Jews themselves.

Peter’s own words spell it out in his paraphrase of Joel: ‘God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women … I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’

And let’s not be fooled by that word ‘prophesy’. It doesn’t mean everyone will become a prophet in the sense of predicting the future. I think it’s simpler than that. I think at its most basic, every time someone speaks a prayer or reads a passage that you find particularly affecting, that’s prophecy: speaking a truth about God’s work in the world we live in.


Not so much what happened, as what was said.

Signpost for Sunday 28th May, 2017: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14; John 17:1-11.

Luke had an excellent way of telling his historical stories. He not only applied himself to getting the context right, but he also managed to make them interesting to read.

The passage from Acts is given the heading The Ascension in bibles which have added notes, but, when reading it I get the impression that this is not its central emphasis. The actual departure of Jesus was obviously rather difficult to describe. How could one describe someone moving into a different space with a different expression of the relationship with the disciples? Luke does his best, but I suspect we have all seen artists’ impressions of Luke’s word with Jesus disappearing in to a cloud. My own impression is that the disciples lost sight of him: their perception failed to keep track of him, and the best Luke could do was to find a symbolic representation of the fact.

Be that as it may, Luke does not seem to make this puzzling, one-off event the central feature of the description of what he writes in this context. He is much more concerned with the words that were spoken. When the disciple asked for detailed information about the purpose of God, Jesus basically tells them that is not our business, your job is to be witnesses to me over the whole world, starting here. It seems that he is using this statement as a form of outline for his book, mapping one of the ways the faith spread over the world.

Then there is the promise of the Spirit, and the short journey back to Jerusalem, and the devotion to prayer. The list of the people who were there included the remaining eleven disciples, some women, the mother of Jesus and his brothers. This last statement is interesting, in that Matthew and Mark tell us that at least the brothers did not believe in him, but now they stayed with the disciples. Jesus, from the cross, asked one of his disciples to look after his mother, not leaving that duty to his brothers. Jesus obviously grew up in a family, with brothers. He knew the rough and tumble of family life, and the effects of separation. Paul later lets us know that, after the resurrection Jesus appeared to his brother James, who later became the leader of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. Perhaps in the last phrase of the passage including Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers we find an early example of the power of the risen Christ to reconcile and unite.


Not a hope in Hell?

Signpost for Sunday 21 May 2017, 6th of Easter: Acts 17:22-31; Ps 66:8-20; 1 Pet 3:13-22; John 14:15-21.

When I was a theological student in my third year I faced the usual task of preparing two substantial “Exercises” for submission to my sponsoring Presbytery. I chose one on a theological topic, the other on a New Testament text. I also insisted that there was no point on N. T. exegesis unless it was to lead to a sermon. This put the N. T. exercise up around 10,000 words.

The topic I chose was 1 Peter 3. 17 to 4. 6, and the Descent into Hell. I am used to re-cycling my sermons, and this one has survived many changes, and is the last one that I preached – three years ago, on the sixth Sunday in Easter.

The picture on which “Peter” bases his material is part of a myth about Sheol, the abode of lost spirits. It was said that the worst people who ever lived, the ones you could be sure to find still in Sheol, were those who refused to hear Noah’s preaching. So Peter says that when Jesus was experiencing the hiatus between the Cross and the Resurrection, he went in the Spirit to preach to them.

There is a clear connection between this and other elements, especially in the saga of the Crucifixion. There we hear the cry of desolation (see Mark 15. 34 or Matthew 27. 46), and remember that the one who hangs on a tree is under God’s curse (Deut. 21. 23). We should know that being cut off not just from life, but also from the commonwealth of Israel and from God, means that Jesus is really at rock bottom at this point.

So what does the incarnate, self-sacrificing love of God do but preach to the worst spirits, to those who have even less hope.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

I do not believe we need the medieval variant on this theme, the Harrowing of Hell. Much of our later Christian imagery has been tainted by the Constantinian take-over of the church, beginning with Constantine’s vision, “In this sign conquer.”    To harrow is to violently disturb the ground in preparation for planting.   It may well give an unfortunately accurate picture of the Christianisation of parts of northern Europe during the first millennium, but it must be cast out from our picture of God in Christ.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

I gained more than I will ever know from my teachers at the Theological Hall, but I always treasure two things. One is the emphasis on exegesis in homiletics classes, especially from Jack Somerville.   The other is an incident at the end of an ethics lecture from Frank Nichol.   In our class was a former Army Warrant Officer, and he asked something like, “Does that mean that the Christian can never kill?” Frank replied that to kill would only be possible if it were the most loving course of action.

So ethics comes down to love, self-sacrificing love. And so does mission, and fellowship, and worship, and (you can carry on here . . .)


No magic tricks.

Signpost for Sunday 14 May 2017 (5TH Sunday of Easter):m Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14.

We had a public lecture at Christ Church last Friday (and may we have many more such opportunities here in the north). I could tell by its weighty title “Understanding the concept of God: some alternatives to the personal omniGod” that it was going to be a bit beyond me, as it surely was. How many Signpost readers can put their hand on their heart and declare that they know the meaning of the word “euteleology”? Those who can impress me rather as Paul W. was impressed last week by the Jewish boys who memorised the whole of the Torah. So as an unscholarly (wo)man-in-the-pew, I am happy to learn from what all sorts of other people have commented on this week’s deeply theological Gospel passage and turn to the simple narrative of the Acts reading.

I’ve never given much thought to Stephen. He’s the man after whom the church behind the airport was named. He’s the man on whose Feast Day Good King Wenceslas set out to brave deep snow and the wind’s wild rage to bring food and wine to the poor wood-gatherer. More seriously he’s known as the first deacon, and, more seriously still, the first Christian martyr. But read the text again with a little more application, and he’s Christ-like. I can imagine a Bible study group being divided into teams and asked to list the number of similarities in Acts 6, 7 and 8:1-2 between the lives and more especially the deaths of Stephen and Jesus. Try it.

Today’s reading introduces Saul to the Christian story and we find it incomprehensible that God would choose such a misguided zealot to carry out his purposes. A human selection panel would certainly have found Stephen himself a more likely candidate. Saul was accorded the mountain-top experience to end them all, but as he journeyed that Damascus road just possibly he was pondering the holiness of Stephen’s death when … we all know what happened.

Saul’s experience was of God, a tremendous gift that few receive. A blinding conversion (literally), but not a magic trick. It had to be worked through for some weeks before he could become – well, before he could become Paul. And so it is, to one degree or another, for us lesser Christians.








Swinging on the gate is fun, but how far does it get you?

Signpost for Sunday 7 May 2017: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10.

I read this week that many scholars believe that Hebrew boys in the first century had to memorise the whole of the Torah for homework. They learned by heart the whole of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. I’m impressed by anyone who can recite Psalm 23.

The thing is, though, that all the men listening to Jesus in this week’s reading (disciples and Pharisees) should therefore have spotted the link between Jesus’ words and Numbers 27: 16-18. Numbers says that the Lord God will appoint someone “who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in”.

And yet John 10:6 tells us that nobody understood what Jesus was saying; they didn’t spot that he was identifying himself as that special someone appointed by YHWH.

Which just goes to show that history and literature are not the same thing. John’s gospel is arguably the most literary of the gospels. I think his account of the empty tomb, for example, (John 20) is particularly moving, with its repeated phrase “Woman why are you weeping?”

When I looked at this week’s reading again I saw more clearly that Jesus isn’t just the good shepherd, he’s the gate. In fact, he says so twice (John 10:7 and 9).

Most of us have a lovely image of Jesus as the shepherd, but do we have as clear an idea of him as something you climb over or swing on? Of course, he says if you do that you’re a thief or a bandit in this instance.

But actually, I wondered what the image of Jesus as the gate could help me think about.

I don’t like the idea that some people pick up on which suggests Jesus is the only gate. That simply excludes people who through no fault of their own never get to hear of his existence. Anyway it also goes against the whole point of this gospel expressed in John 3:16 (For God so loved the world…)

The image of the gate draws a picture of inside and outside. The man who had been blind in chapter 9 was thrown out by the Pharisees. But when Jesus restored his sight he was letting him in – into a better world, where at the very least he could from then on see what he was eating, who was speaking to him. He could again take part in life rather than being an outcast left to beg.

Maybe that’s one meaning of Jesus the gate – he’s asking us to take part in life, not just sit on the sidelines.


What’s the news?

Signpost for Sunday 30 April, 2017 (Easter 3): Acts 2: 14a, 36-41; Ps 116: 1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1: 17-23; Luke 24: 13-35.

I don’t look forward to writing about a really well-known passage. I find the best way is to read each prescribed text for the week and see if I have any immediate thoughts. If not I go in search of scholarly advice.

This week, happily, I had a few thoughts of my own straight away. See what you make of them.

The first is rather tiny but it jumped out. Ps 116:17 says, “I will offer thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving.” Forgive my ignorance, but I’d always thought the sacrifice of thanksgiving was an invention of the modern church to replace the ancient practice of blood/animal sacrifice. It seems the idea of simply singing your heart out or earnestly praying thanks to God has been around for a long time. So, it must be OK.

My second was this. Do we read or listen to the story of the journey from Emmaus and see it simply as an example of Jesus’ resurrection?

Luke may or may not have meant it to be, but it may have more to offer us than that. For example, I like the way Jesus sneaks up on Cleopas and his companion and says, “What the heck are you two on about?” Sure, this could be a bit of subtefuge on his part. “Hey, don’t you recognise me as the bloke who just got crucified?” That might well be his secret question. But what about if we look at it like this: ‘While you’re busy talking about the news headlines, you’re missing the important stuff’?

I get up every morning and open my online newspaper thinking, ‘What’s he done now?’ Of course, I’m talking about Precedent Trump. (I deliberately spelled that Precedent because he’s the first – but maybe not the last – total dork elected to that highest office in the USA.)

But what matters first and foremost is not the Don, it’s who I meet each day and how I behave towards them. There are people I don’t like at work. They are scheming, backstabbing, and underhand. What should I do? Avoiding them is impossible, arguing with them is futile and behaving like them just isn’t me. Funnily enough, actually talking to them, treating them like human beings and voicing my genuine views on things seems to work quite often.

Now, I’m not saying that’s going to work with Donald Trump. What I am saying is that he’s a distraction, a media, gossip, Twitter, Facebook distraction. Just like all the chat in Jerusalem about the awful goings-on; it distracts most of us from the real point – that the example Jesus set and the things he suggested we should think and do didn’t die with him.

You could, of course, take the view, as heard from the lectern, that Jesus is saying to Cleopas and friend, “Don’t you realise, the prophets foretold my coming, death and resurrection?” That may be true, but as they say, “I’ve heard it all before.”



There’s no doubt about doubt.

Signpost for Sunday 23rd April 2017, Easter 2, Low Sunday: Acts 2. 14a, 22-32; Psalm 16. 1 Peter 1. 3-9; Jn 20. 19-31.

Low Sunday, the day we come back down to earth after the heights of Easter Day!   The Gospel begins with John’s version of Pentecost. So much happens in the period from the Palm Sunday ride into Jerusalem, that we cannot comprehend it even in eight days. We spread it out to try and cover it. We extend it to Pentecost, which is where Luke places the giving of the Spirit. Mark does not feature the giving of the Spirit at all, and Matthew sends the disciples back to their village at this point. (The time line for the Gospels seems to be Mark, Matthew/Luke, John; and start to finish is several decades.)

However, John places it in the evening of Easter day, though in the Lectionary we defer consideration of it by a week. John also differs from his predecessor by omitting the mighty wind (YHWH moving in creation?) and substituting an appearance of the Risen Lord himself.

I like it that this reading speaks of Thomas. His experience speaks to us, not on the high mountain but in the midst of the mundane. He is the apostle who said, “Let’s go to Jerusalem with him and die if we must.”

Thomas is the Patron Saint of all who experience doubts, which includes a great number of people. Doubts are human; doubts are permissible; doubts are part of a living faith. And the first chapter of Acts is the last we hear of Thomas. The New Testament writings are very much oriented to the Greek and Roman churches.   History is written by the winners?

Yet Thomas may be one of the very influential Apostles. He is regarded as the Apostle to India. There are no documentary sources to confirm this, but the Church in India has been known as the Mar Thoma Church for longer that we have records.  There is some archeological evidence of the Church in India in the First Century.

1 Peter may have been written to churches in Asia Minor, but some scholars suggest that it began its life as an Easter Sermon. In the early church, new members went through a lengthy catechumenate and were often baptized on Easter Day.

The reading from Acts is from Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, and he quotes Psalm 16, so the readings connect together more than they do some Sundays.