Tagged: theology

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


‘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.


Catch of the day.

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.



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?


Searching for the Easter message.

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.


aSearching for the Real Jesus’, Geta Vermes, 2009.