Signpost for Sunday 13 May 2018: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Ps 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
There is so much in this Gospel chapter that Martin Luther took three months of Sundays to get through it. And because of its theme of belonging together in love we have since put even more on it. This has been called “Asia Sunday”; the period from the Ascension to Pentecost was celebrated as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; and if the Ascension is not to be lost in the midweek, then it needs must feature today.
So we had better go back to the beginning. What we sometimes call the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus is actually a theological meditation gathered together seventy years after the Crucifixion in a Church in Asia Minor. Perhaps they include a good number of Jewish Christians driven out a generation past by the war under the general (later Emperor) Titus – the war sometimes called Armageddon. They might share a little of the blame for the rebellion that provoked that war. There might be a few Gentiles who fled the persecutions in Rome that centred around the great fire there.
They know a great deal about living in difficult situations, but they see their plight as a reflection of what Jesus suffered in himself. They know that the death of Jesus was not the end, so they believe that God has the last word. They know Jesus is still among them and that God’s Spirit binds them together in Christ. That keeps them going, and here they affirm that unity.
So, during this retelling of the Passion, this “prayer” helps them identify as individuals and as a church with what is to come.
. . . . . . . . . .
The coming together of the divided Church was a wonderful outcome of the Missionary Movements of the late Nineteenth century. What we seem to see today is but a poor reflection of that – a joining together of the similar but not too different, while the wider Christian community continues to fall apart. It is getting harder to pray that they might all be one.
Signpost for Sunday 6 May 2018: Acts 10:44-48; Ps 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17.
The author of John is fond of using the word love. So I thought it would be fun to see how he actually compared with the rest of the Bible. I turned to my concordance and found that the entry for ‘love’ covered six closely packed columns of tiny print, divided into more than ten categories, such as ‘ love – noun’, ‘love – verb’, ‘love of God’, ‘his love’, ‘my love’, ‘your love’, ‘loved’, ‘loves’, etc. The fine print beat me in the end, so I confined my search to the five largest categories, and found as follows.
John uses ‘love’ on average every 1.7 pages of text. The rest of the biblical authors use it on average every 9.7 pages. This is a huge discrepancy, considering that Paul is a pretty heavy user too: six times in 1 Corinthians:13 alone.
Counting the use of ‘love’ in John’s first letter was not too hard; I counted 48 in nine pages, 22 of them on a single page (1 John 4:7-17).
I freely confess that I have been indulging in a trivial pursuit, and it was harder than I expected, and not much fun. But I got a good overview of ‘1 John’ in the process and was able to put this week’s portion of the context of the whole of this very important letter.
It’s clear from several comments that John is addressing a deeply divided community. It certainly looks as though he was confronting a situation similar to the sort of angry reactions that are threatening to divide the Anglican Communion right now, about the ordination of homosexual people.
John’s argument with his quarrelsome ‘children’ is based on four attributes of God: God is light; God is love; God is spirit; God is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The first verse reminds us that ‘Christ’ is not just a title added to the name of Jesus, but a statement of faith. Jesus is demonstrated to be God’s ‘anointed son’ by reason of his resurrection. Our faith in this fact is “the victory that has overcome”.
So, all of our doings, our relationships, decisions, even our disagreements, should be based on three crucial verses in John 4; numbered 11,12,13. Read them in the light of John 15:16. I’m now finding myself astounded at how well John’s writings hang together.
From the collected Signposts of Brye Blackhall
Signpost for Sunday 15 April 2018: Acts 3:12-19 Ps 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48.
The most amazing thing about this week’s reading from Luke is broiled fish. Then look at John 21:12; Jesus and the disciples have a fish breakfast. What on earth is going here? Is it true? Is the author of John’s gospel building on Luke’s version? It’s pretty certain that neither the author of Luke’s or John’s gospel was an eye witness. Yet these particular events have been enough to make some people become Christians.
To be honest, I can’t work out whether these two latest of the gospel writers are so smart they made this up because most of the disciples were fishermen or whether there is any truth in these accounts.
Because I am not a Bible literalist, I tend to credit Luke and John with adding a tangible fact to make their stories more credible. But I still love these stories. If Jesus really did appear to the disciples, I love that he wanted to eat with them. From that perspective, John’s breakfast story is my favourite.
But let’s get back to Luke. First, broiled fish what is that? These days apparently people have a broiler pan in their ovens. Not so here. Upside-down grilling is one way I’ve heard broiling described. OK, a sort of grilled fish. Yum.
On a slightly less culinary note, Luke seems to be a real historian at first glance (Luke 1:1-4). But is he really?. If indeed he was the physician who travelled with Paul (as some scholars have suggested), then, like Paul, he was no eye witness, and did he pick up most things from Paul himself? In which case, there is no way he would have been told about broiled fish.
All of which makes me see today’s reading as one that is not a deal-breaker for anyone who wants to follow Jesus’s instructions to us all about how we should spend our time on earth.
The other thing that struck me about this reading from Luke is how keen the author is to assure us that the entire canon of the Hebrew scriptures point directly to Jesus. He doesn’t quote any scripture to make the case though. Instead he has Jesus himself say so.
For us who have modern bibles, any connection between the Old and the New testaments is second nature. But some of the early Christians downplayed Jesus’ connection to Israel. Understandable really, as they were gentile converts. My guess is that Luke wants and needs to make it clear to his gentile friends and early followers of the way that there is only one way to understand the story of Christ.
And speaking of stories, if we read one verse on from those prescribed this week, we see what a good writer the author of Luke is. Luke 24: 49 reads “… but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” How’s that for a cliff-hanger of an ending to his first book. Can’t wait for this ‘Acts of the Apostles’ to be published now can we.
Signpost for Sunday 10th April 2018 (Second Sunday of Easter – Low Sunday): Acts 4; 32-35: Psalm 133: 1 John 1:1-2.2: John 20:19-31.
I have been delighted to read recently that the Pope stands accused of heresy. It appears that he has an old reporter friend with whom he chats. The friend does not record their talks but he reports the gist of them from memory. Pope Francis does not comment on these reports, but others do.
It seems that Francis rejects the idea of Hell as being inconsistent with his understanding of a loving God, but the more orthodox in the Vatican deplore this as a falling away from certain historical statements of faith.
A few Signposts back I shared a concern about the academic standards of exegesis in a PhD thesis. I can report that I am somewhat reassured by a discussion with a member of the Otago University Theology Department. In that conversation I suggested that what holds us together in the church is the love of God, and what divides us is that way we read the Bible.
Now that second generalisation is much too narrow; Authority in the Church, Tradition, styles of music etc, etc, have to take their place there too. But the first premise is upheld by the faith of Pope Francis and by our readings today. When the Psalmist celebrated the togetherness of the faithful; when John conflates Easter and Pentecost, and the disciples rejoice at his company; when the Books of Acts portrays the (idealised?) state of the early church we see the love of God at work in these communities of faith.
I have problems with the reading from 1 John, but am re-assured by reading on past the set lection to where chapter 2, verses 9 – 11 put the matter right. It is in loving one another that the light is visible. The same idea is found in the Liturgy which I hear the most, page 404 of the NZ Prayer Book. The new commandment, or the two most important commandments are about loving one another because God first loves us.
So what’s “Low” about that?
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.
a ‘Searching for the Real Jesus’, Geta Vermes, 2009.
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.
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.
(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.