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 2nd July 2017: Gen 22:1-14; Ps 13; Rom 6:12-23; Matt 10:40-42.
Three years ago I wrote a Signpost on these very same verses. I was perturbed then and all I could really do was recommend Leonard Cohen’s song The Story of Isaac to you.
This time round I remain perturbed, and I’m not the only one. John C. Holbert, the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas has this to say about Genesis 22: “Let me make something very clear from the outset of this piece: I deeply dislike and thoroughly distrust this morsel of the sacred text.”
It’s worth reading the rest of his thoughts especially as he now refuses to preach on this text ever again.
Fortunately, I don’t have to preach on anything but I do have to write this Signpost. Which is why I’m glad that I happen to be reading a book by Brian D. McLaren at the moment. The title hooked me straight away: ‘Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.’ As a book that makes you think about things you may not have questioned, that many people just don’t question, I can thoroughly recommend it.
And what it has to do with the Abraham and Isaac story is that it suggests another way to look at the First and Second Testaments.
McLaren writes: ‘For most of us, I suspect, our concept of Christianity, follows a similar pattern to this: What is true of God is true of Jesus; Jesus is equal to God. Also, we would say that Jesus is the revelation of God to us, or that if we want to understand God, Jesus is the ‘human’ version of God.’
I think he’s right about that and it’s probably what I would have said before reading his book. But, he points out, there is another way of looking at things, one that McLaren suggests actually makes more sense of the notion of ‘New’ Testament and ‘Gospel’, and even the whole point of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
It’s not something new; the alternative concept of Christianity is in fact how Franciscans, the Celts and Quakers see things: First seek to understand or know Christ. Then apply this understanding to God. Enrich, challenge, adjust, affirm or correct all previous understandings of God in the light of Christ.
Personally, I’d never thought about Christianity in exactly those terms. And then I thought, if I take this approach, the story of Abraham and Isaac is less of a problem for me. Or to put it another way – this is not a story about the God I believe in, because Jesus shows me a different understanding of who God is.
Signpost for Sunday 1 November 2015, All Saints Day: Isa 25:6-9; Ps 24:1-6; Rev 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
Festive readings with a deliberately obvious link are given to us this week. Isa 25:8 and Rev 21:4, echo each other clearly across the mountains of scripture between them.
But I thought I’d have a look at what may not be quite so obvious on first reading the passage from John instead.
One thing that struck me was that Mary says exactly the same thing to Jesus as her sister has just said (“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”). Yet Jesus’ response is completely different from how he answers Martha. He doesn’t talk theology again.
Instead, surrounded by death and mourning, he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply troubled.” Before our very eyes, Jesus the Word becomes Jesus the flesh and blood human being (just as John 1:14 promised). He is overcome by the kind of grief and sorrow that all of us experience at such times. I think the writer of John’s gospel is deliberately and brilliantly using the realism of this death to underline the truth of this (Lazarus’s) resurrection.
And it’s another starkly realistic bit in this story that stands out for me, too. Look at what Martha says when Jesus asks them to roll back the stone: “Lord, already he stinks.”
I’ve always thought that was put in there to make sure we know that Lazarus really is dead and not just in a very deep sleep (or coma) as Jesus metaphorically says in John 11:11. But because I carried on reading this week, it made me notice something else. Immediately after a story where the stench of death hangs in the air comes a story in which Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with pure nard, and the “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (12:3) – the aroma of life perhaps.
Which is really what we want on the festival of All Saints, when you think that we’re celebrating the lives of the saints, not their deaths. Personally, I think it’s a shame we don’t still call it Hallowmas as Shakespeare does in the Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 2 Scene 1.
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!)