Tagged: religion

Definitions, dogma and doubts.

Signpost for Sunday 27 May, 2018, Trinity Sunday: Isa 6:1-8; Ps 29; Rom 8:12-17; John 3:1-17:

This is a special Sunday, when we commemorate the three-ness of God, and the best (and almost only) reference in the Bible that the makers of our lectionary can find appropriate, is the “Holy, Holy, Holy” shouted by a group of supernatural creatures in the vision of a holy man about 740 years before Jesus was born. The only other reference in the Bible is in the “sign-off” sentence for the second letter from Paul to the Corinthians.

The theory of a Trinity can be found implied in some other New Testament texts. But it wasn’t until the second century of our Era that the three classical creeds (Apostles, Nicene, and the one called the creed of St. Athanasius, or Quicunque Vult) that The Trinity was defined. And belief in it became a necessity for acceptance into the fellowship of Church. That, with a few exceptions, remained the situation for the next eighteen centuries! It is amazing that those creeds survived, (translated but not unchanged), such upheavals as radical as the Reformation.

Towards the end of the 20th century various branches of the Anglican family of Churches (and other families I expect) started to accept the fact that language doesn’t stay still, and started to re-write their creeds. A good example is on page 481 of the New Zealand Prayer Book. We at St. Paul’s also had a collection of creeds on transparencies, and from time to time we chose one and put it on the overhead projector and recited it together. One of the better examples was written by a 15 year old school-boy.

Before I had to stop preaching, one of our lady enablers asked me to write my creed for her. I think she was afraid that I was getting a bit too heretical. I typed an example and presented it to her at my next interview. She took it away and never mentioned it again.

Most of the examples of creeds that I have come across pre-suppose that God is three-in-one, i.e. a Trinity. If we assert (and we do, every Sunday) that there must be some “Power” that causes to be: Time and space;  An uncountable number of galaxies existing in that time and space; Each galaxy consisting of an uncountable number of suns; Many of which will have a solar system like ours; Containing planets like ours, where living creatures could evolve like ours… is it not presumptuous to assert that we know that “Power” to consist of three “Persons” to which we can attach three labels?

If thoughts like that are too difficult for you to explain in words, join the club!

P.S. I forgot to mention that Athanasius was the first member of the club. Verse 9 of his creed goes: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible”. What do you think of that?

From the collected Signposts of Brye Blackhall


Three tongues speaking.

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.


‘Come together right now, over me’ (the 130 AD version).

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.


All you need is love. (All together now).

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

The vine, the Minister of Finance and the naughty Christians.

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.


Where the light gets in.

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?


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.


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.