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 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 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 Sunday 25 March, 2018 (6th Sunday in Lent: Palm Sunday): Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16; Ps 118:1-2,19-29
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, estimated that up to two and quarter million people visited Jerusalem during the Passover festival. Some scholars dispute that figure but most agree that at Passover the number of people in Jerusalem was four times its normal population.
When I came to this week’s well-known reading (Mark or John), those figures came to mind again. It made we wonder about whether or not we really know how this last week of Yeshua’s life on earth started, and what might be important about the actual events as far as we can work out two thousand years later.
Yeshua’s entry into Jerusalem is recounted in all four gospels. Mark, Matthew and Luke all tell the story of him telling a couple of his disciples that they will find a colt tethered and waiting, which adds to the drama. John merely writes ‘Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.’
Now have a look at what each of them says about the crowd that waived their palm leaves as Jesus road in:
John says the ‘great crowd that had come to the Passover… took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him’.
Matthew says, ‘A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road’.
Mark says ‘many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields’.
My guess is that many of us read this as if Jesus was welcomed by most of the people in Jerusalem at the time. And that would certainly have spooked the Roman occupying forces.
But I think he wouldn’t have been welcomed by most of the people in Jerusalem at the time. The crowd was mostly likely a small crowd, made up of his disciples and others who had begun to follow him in the provinces.
In fact, Luke’s version goes like this: ‘‘As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
It’s not the crowd shouting Jesus’s praises. The crowd don’t recognise him for who he is, messiah or rebel, and they’d have been pretty terrified if they had.
After all, there were two processions into Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Jesus was approaching Jerusalem from Bethany and Bethphage in the east. The Roman army was marching in from the west, to maintain order over a population that had suddenly grown fourfold, and was there to celebrate its liberation from a conquering power (Pharaoh in Egypt).
There’s no doubt then that the procession of the Roman army would have been pretty darn scary: thousands of soldiers marching, with Legionnaires on horseback, Roman eagles all over the show, armour clanking, and drums beating.
Symbolically, it’s often said that the Jesus came in peace and the Romans came in war. Symbolically that’s true. Horses versus donkeys and all that. But I suggest Jesus didn’t arrive in the city to be greeted as any kind of national rebel, nor was he ever mistaken for one. Not by the Romans or the Jews themselves.
Let’s remember what Yeshua did as soon as he hopped off his donkey. He went straight to the Temple, and that’s where the trouble started. It was people’s relationship with God that bothered Jesus, not their relationship with Rome.
P.S. Happy nearly end of Lent. Here comes the chocolate. But there are also some extra Signposts coming your way. Andrew has encouraged we Signposters to celebrate Easter by writing a Good Friday Signpost, an Easter Saturday Signpost and an Easter Day Signpost. So George will kick off on Good Friday, followed by Andrew and myself.
Signpost for Sunday 15th October, 2017: Exodus 32:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14.
The parable of the wedding banquet is often assumed to be another version of a similar parable in Luke, often called the parable of the great dinner. This assumption seems to me to be based on the idea that we have, in the gospels, a significant proportion of what Jesus taught, and also incorporates the thought that Jesus would never have repeated a good story in a modified form.
Matthew presents the parable as part of a series of interactions with the leaders of the people which are, effectively, discussions of the meaning of the action which Jesus took in moving the traders out of the temple. Matthew’s story seems to have had an insertion made into it (v. 7), perhaps from a comment written in the margin referring to the destruction of Jerusalem. Leaving this verse out allows the view that, by bringing in the people from the streets, the king was letting his originally chosen guests know that they had been displaced by people who they would have regarded as their inferiors. In the context of the parable, physical destruction is not necessary, loss of status is sufficient. The last two verses of the passage seem to be the end of another parable, and are consequently rather difficult to put into context.
If we read this parable in the way that is presupposed by its introduction, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’ then I suppose we can see ourselves as guests who are invited off the street, and having accepted the invitation, find ourselves given a commission to find more guests. Having become guests and servants, we can rejoice in our new-found status and responsibilities. In the word of the apostle: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.
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.