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 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 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 .
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.
Signpost for Sunday 11th. June, Trinity Sunday: Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a; Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20.
I have been reading some essays by Rowan Williams, and one of them reminded me of a word I have not seen for some time: pneumatology: (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: “2. Theol. The, or a, doctrine of the Holy Spirit 1881”).
One essay that I read set me off on a line of thought, so I will try to formulate it in the context of the readings. The two short readings both include the Three-in-One form: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and are effectively an invitation to attempt to find out more about the Three-in-One from the rest of the New Testament.
There appears to be more than one way that the work of the Spirit is described. Luke seems to describe the Spirit as a sort of conduit, bringing sporadic and powerful interventions. In Acts, he uses phrases like Paul, filled with the Spirit, … and, Peter, filled with the Spirit… almost as if this was an abnormal event. Of course, since Luke is such a good story-teller, and takes care that what he records is accurate, his presentation may represent what those witnessing the events could actually perceive. Sometimes the people of God pick up this view and regard one or two things as the primary, or possibly the only, evidence of the work of the Spirit.
Ideas like this led the Corinthian congregation to ask questions, and Paul could respond in more depth and detail than could be provided in a book like Acts. In his letter to the Corinthians he gives an extended view of the gifts, given by the Spirit, for the common good of the people of God, but he adds: I will show you a more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, and have not love, I am a noisy gong, or a clanging cymbal. This love enables the congregation to work together, and provides the framework in which the gifts can work for the common good.
In his letter to the Romans he writes: You did not receive a Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if in fact we suffer with him so that we may be glorified with him.
Here Paul explains that we are being drawn by the Spirit into the family of the Three-in-One. Here is the work of the Spirit. The Spirit brings us to new birth in the everlasting family: she gives us new life, we are born in the Spirit. (She seems to me to be the appropriate pronoun.)
But the family into which we are born is not a risk-free environment: The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world, so we, as brothers and sisters also face risks. This is how the Three-in-One works as a unity.
Finally, John, in a letter sums things up for the redeemed part of the family: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not been revealed. What we know is this: we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Jesus was taking time with his disciples to try to get them to understand what was to happen to him. The combination of betrayal, death and resurrection was a set of ideas which did not in any way match what they thought should happen. Jesus obviously regarded the combination as all of one piece, and as part of his mission as the anointed one, but the emphasis falls on the resurrection. The concept of a resurrection was not foreign to the disciples, but their idea was probably that there would be a resurrection of the righteous at the beginning of the age to come. The notion of an individual resurrection lay far outside their conceptual framework. Just like many of us, faced with an incomprehensible lesson the disciples avoided the problem by getting involved in something else, they began arguing about the position of each one of them in their group.
The status of an individual was a very important part of life, and a servant was very low in the pecking order, so the concept of the Messiah as servant was again incomprehensible. The idea of the greatest being the servant of all broke all the rules of status, rank and standing in society. Children were also of very low status, but Jesus took a child in the crook of his arm and described the child as one who represented himself. We could use this statement by Jesus to raise questions about refugee children.
Some years ago a group on Waiheke started an enterprise which they called The Village Project: it was aimed at providing fresh water for a village in Africa. One of the people involved built concrete water tanks on Waiheke and he took himself over there to built tanks for the village. The local Waiheke newspaper had a photograph of him with a small child sitting in the crook of his arm. The child was happy, confident and smiling. I wonder if the child Jesus held, in front of a group of uncomprehending disciples, felt like the child in the photograph.
Photo courtesy of Waiheke Gulf News
Signpost for June 9 2013, Ordinary Sunday 10: 1 Kings 17:8-16, Gal. 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17.
My Bible has two parallel upright lines in the margin at the side of particular piece of the text that means “parallel in another book”, and gives the reference or two. Now, I was taught rather a long time ago that the three first Gospels in the Second Testament were written a very long time after the events they record. I didn’t take much note of it, discounting these “Low Church” ideas; we “Anglo-Catholics” knew better. Nowadays I’m more tolerant, and look for down-to-earth explanations for the events that may have been blown-up by being passed on by word of mouth.
Now you may ask what all that blurb is about. Well, I had made a mistake. You see, our first reading today in 1 Kings is the story of Elijah turning the jar of meal & the jug of oil bottomless. But I started reading at the wrong point, and read about the prophet bringing back to life the dead son of a widow, and it’s the next story in the book! I thought, aha, Luke thought, “We can’t let Elijah look better than Jesus in reviving dead widows’ sons. I’ll include a story I’ve been given about Jesus meeting and resuscitating a widow’s son being carried dead through the town gate of Nain. I wonder why Mark didn’t mention it. My informant seem reliable so we’ll put it in.” So when I read the story in my Bible, there are no upright parallel lines in the margin.
But what about Jairus’ daughter, both Mark and Matthew have her story, and the parallel sign in the margin their text ? Well, we’re told she’d only just died, and that only because Jesus had been delayed and got there too late. In the original story, Mark’s, Jesus shoved the crowd out, and brought the girl to life. When I was in the fire brigade I was taught how to resuscitate, without any special gear, a person who had stopped breathing not too long before. I never had to do it, but some amazing cases get in the news from time to time.
That leaves us with the Epistle to muddle up. Galatia is the inland area of Turkey, around Konya and Kaysen on modern maps, an area that Paul visited during his first journey. He has found out that others following him have spoiled his work by teaching that in being a Christian you have to conform to a set of rules (especially circumcision).
Paul didn’t have Gospel Stories to provide texts to preach on, like we have, courtesy of the four Gospellers. On the Damascus road he learned only one, the one that starts thus: “No greater love …” (Jn 15:13) which defines the word “love” as a verb, not just a noun.
The Greeks in his congregation had to learn that the whole universe has only one creator God, and that is Love, not a collection of petty gods coveting each other’s patch. To the Jews he taught that love doesn’t consist of conforming to a list of rules to the last dot and tittle, but to be loving the whole of creation and ALL those that live in it.
There’s plenty in that lot to argue about. Let’s be having it! The address is
Brye Blackhall (you guess!)