Signpost for Sunday May 20, 2018 (Pentecost): Ezek 37:1-14; Rom 8: 22-27; Acts 2:1-21.
All of us who have written a few Signposts face the prospect of writing on the same readings more than once over the years. Pentecost is such a day, and I think all of us find writing about very famous passages and festivals a challenge. I wrote last year’s Pentecost Signpost for 1 June 2017, so this year I thought it might be interesting to look back a bit further at what a few of us have written about today’s readings over the years.
Sheila, as always, sets the scene so well: Seven weeks from Passover, celebrating the Exodus, to Shavu’ot, celebrating the giving of the Torah, by some considered to be the day on which Judaism was born. Seven weeks from the Resurrection to the giving of the Holy Spirit, the day on which the Christian Church was born. Our faith is overflowing with symbolism, and Pentecost is the most striking of them all.
Andrew has given us this striking picture of the early Church as being made up of: earnest students of the word. By the word I mean the scriptures that we call the Old Testament. By early I do not mean the years immediately after the crucifixion, but those times when things were beginning to be written down. There is a gap here because the first generation mostly believed that the times were so short that there was no point in writing things down. Then Paul and others began writing letters; and experience of being scattered throughout the Roman world meant that some gathered up sayings of Jesus and other little lists. And being driven out of Jerusalem by the Roman invasion and destruction was the last straw.
So they looked back on what they could remember, and they also looked back on the scriptures; and they interpreted their memory of events to fit their understanding of the sacred writings, sometimes regarding them as predictions about their own times.
For them the later portions of Isaiah were there in order to make sense of the Cross. Ezekiel’s skeletons were there to show how the dead church after the shock of Jesus’ death could come alive and spread to the whole Roman world.
And five years ago I had my first go at Pentecost: Acts 2:3 describes tongues of fire, and who knows if tongue-shaped flames actually flew in and came to rest on each disciple’s shoulder or what really happened. The image makes a great painting, though, (El Greco, Giotto, Reubens) but is that the point? Tongues of fire seem to me to represent a burning desire to speak about Jesus and his message. Pentecost makes this an absolutely immediate impetus for Peter and the rest of them. Then Acts:8 is supposed to be a miracle. Again I don’t think so. You can waste a lot of time arguing about what happened that day. But surely the real point is not that each disciple was magically able to speak 15 languages at the same time (Acts 2:9-11) or that that they were ‘speaking in tongues’ that miraculously translated in the ear of each listener. You could say it’s simply pointing to the fact that the Gospel was intended for everyone, not just the Jewish people. Or you could put it this way: Jesus’ message can be understood by everyone in the world, no matter what language they speak or in which country they are born. Love your neighbour as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Those are universal concepts. Most people just seem to have trouble living up to them. That’s usually where the trouble starts.
P.S. Don’t forget to wear something pink or red to church this week. I always forget.
Signpost for Sunday, 29th April 2018: Acts 8:26-40 Ps 22:25-31 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast John’s viticultural analogy in today’s Gospel with Paul’s anatomical analogy t 1 Cor. 12 12-30. Both are based on a living organism, one plant and onChristianse animal. One argumentative and one passive, one culled for failing to produce results, and the other potentially disrupting the performance of the whole organism by envying the function of another part. The vine picture is important in stressing our need to be attached to the True Vine if we are to deliver the goods. But I find that the picture of the body is more useful, as it lays stress on the many different special functions that have to co-operate to make up a productive entity.
If you read both passages, I’m sure you’ll find some other similarities and contrasts between the two pictures.
The story of the Ethiopian Minister of Finance is also full of interest (Acts 8:26-40). The part of the world he came from was what we would call the Sudan, and it was ruled by female monarchs in those days. Women’s Lib can claim an ancient and honourable history! We tend to think of the inclusion of Gentiles in the Church as having been started with Peter’s vision of the sheet (or sail) descending with forbidden animas, and his subsequent preaching to Cornelius, and the missions of Paul, later on still. But this total foreigner became a baptised Christian on an impulse before either of those mainstream events.
It’s a great pity that Luke wasn’t able to follow up on that story (Lk 1. 1-4 & Acts 1.1) because we do know that a Christian Church was established in that part of the world and that it subsequently became totally separated from the mainline Churches of the Mediterranean Seaboard. The Coptic1 Church and its close relative in what we now call Ethiopia preserve customs, ceremonies. And doctrines much closer to those of the infant Church that Philip knew than anything that survives in the Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant Churches.
They also preserved a translation in their own language of a Hebrew text known as the Book of Jubilees, which consists of a re-write of many of the early stories in the Hebrew Bible. Among its curiosities is a different version of the story of Abraham and Isaac, which puts a totally different spin on it from that in Genesis. For centuries Jewish scholars insisted that it was heretical, and a dirty trick perpetuated by naughty Christians. They had to change their story when fragments of it written in Hebrew turned up among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
From the collected Signposts of the late Brye Blackhall
1 Coptic Christian pig-farmers in Egypt in 2009 were very upset when the government used the swine flu as an excuse to put them out of business.
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 24th September 2017: Exod 16:2-15; Ps 105:1-6, 37-45; Phil 1:21-30; Matt 20: 1-16.
I have all sorts of difficulties with one thread of today’s readings. There is an assumption that God looks after (physically and materially) his chosen elite. There is a sense that prayer reinforces that. Yet we all know, for example, that in voting we are asked as Christians to consider what was good for the nation and especially the poorer among us rather that what was in it for us.
Even the Pauline consideration of the uncertainty of life has this feeling to it. I have a friend who is disillusioned with the church (I totally sympathise with the particular reasons) and is rather put off by church-going friends who urge, “Have hope!” and who either seem to be echoing Paul, or perhaps looking for a miracle cure.
Other Church-goers speak of a loved one being re-united with a life-partner. I am sure that God has more imagination than to subject my wife, loving as she is, to an eternity of me. All I know about what lies beyond this life is that God loves us all. Anything more is speculative and can be fun, as can any speculative theology. But it is fun on the level of Fantasy Fiction, not authoritative theology.
And if we live a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ, then we too will be loving, and even, perhaps, a little fanciful.
I am also realising that I am having more to do with dying people than I used to. In Ministry I dealt much more often with the bereaved. I became adept at listening to them talk of the deceased, and (before the all-in modern funeral) projecting their love to the rest of the congregation.
Three years ago, in my notes for this week I wrote of the goodness of God; now I speak of the love of God. Paul does this from prison, not from a comfortable house. As the second hurricane inside a month bears down on Puerto Rico, we cannot speak of a God who makes all this safe, but only of a loving God who hurts with us.
We are to be like the vineyard owner, generous. We are to be like the late arrivals, grateful. We have the love of God; everything else is an extra.
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.
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)
Signpost for Sunday 18th June 2017 (11th in Ordinary Time): Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35 – 10:23.
How good it is to get back to the Genesis narratives. Today we have the Yahwist’s account of the announcement of Isaac’s birth, which in some respects is similar to the Priestly writer’s version in chapter 17. Both emphasise the tension between God’s promise of an heir and its fulfilment, in that both Abraham and Sarah are well beyond the age for child-bearing.
Today Sarah overhears the promise made to Abraham and laughs. She laughs to herself but God is not too pleased and chides her (through Abraham, not directly) for not understanding that there is nothing too wonderful for the Lord.
In the preceding chapter it is Abraham who laughs. The incredibly learned 17th century commentator, Matthew Henry, has it that Abraham’s laughter arises from great humility (he falls on his face) and great joy, but Sarah’s laughter is from doubt and mistrust. Although God does not rebuke Abraham as he does Sarah, the context in each version seems to allow the presumption that both of them had their “Yeah, right!” moment. However, Paul, using Abraham as the example in his dissertation on righteousness through faith in Romans 4, tells us that “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead… No distrust made him waiver concerning the promise of God …”
Isaac, the second of the great patriarchs, is born and Sarah laughs again (21:6-7), this time in great joy and wonderment for herself and for “everyone who hears”. His name, given to him by God (17:19), means “He Laughs”. Joy is the proper response to the beginning of the creation of that great Nation of which we are now part.