Tag Archives: Lectionary


Gospel: John 20:1-18.

I’ve skipped over a lot of important parts of Holy Week here, going straight to Sunday. In sense, though, this is the end and the beginning of the whole story: the Resurrection is the final event which (is taken to) prove the status of Jesus as the Christ, and it’s the launch pad from which the Christian story will take off. It is the end of the Gospels and the start of Acts; the last part of the good news and starting point for action.

In John’s telling, it is Mary Magdalene who is first to realise the significance of the event. When she does, she goes and tells the others about it. For many people considering Christianity today, especially although not only from the outside, this might represent one of the most problematic aspects of it: the demand it makes that the believer tell others, share the good news, try to convince and to convert. There are, of course, better and worse ways of doing this – but if my Facebook and my Twitter feed are anything to go by, plenty of people are encountering Christians today who are irritating or worse. These complaints don’t only come up around Easter, but the urgency which the season lends to the message seems to make it more common.

Mary, of course, didn’t go to strangers, which probably helped. She “went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’.”

From today’s Doyleist, outside-the-story, perspective, this is pretty flimsy evidence. Some writer says that someone said that she saw someone who was apparently dead two days before. If we take the story on its own terms, though, and look at the Watsonian perspective, we can see why the disciples are convinced: someone they know well reports to them something strange but positive about someone whom they knew and trusted, and who had shown himself capable of many weird things. Perhaps it’s easier, too, to understand Thomas, who demands proof for himself.

And what can I say? Only really this, that although I can enter into the story in this imaginative way, and am aware that it has a certain mythic power, I do not find resonance with it.

Lent 6

This is a place-holder post; it says more ‘I know I ought to post on my blog’ than anything else. I have had, one way and another, a very busy week indeed.

Gospel: Mark 11:1-11.

To me, this story is always intertwined with another one: James Naylor‘s recreation of it.

Lent 5

I’m afraid I read all of these week’s lections and went, ‘no, really, I don’t think I have anything to say here’. Consequently I am quizzing people about what other topics I should tackle; but it seems silly to give up here and I will keep on going until Easter. Maybe at least that story will have some inspiration in it!

Gospel: John 12:20-33.

Some of this seems okay. “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This symbolism is familiar to me, at least, and although I’m not sure about the implications (am I the sower, letting go of the grain of wheat I have now for more in the future, or the wheat itself, dying to create fruit? Since human reproduction doesn’t generally work like that, the latter has to be a metaphor but it’s not quite clear for what. Or is it my ego which is the grain of wheat? This starts to sound more Buddhist quite quickly).

The next bit sounds horrible, though. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” If you turn this into instructions, how does it come out? On no account like your life, because if you do you’ll lose it; but try not to mean it, because if you genuinely dislike your life, you’ll be cursed with one into eternity – which you will, presumably, hate as a result.

Then we’re back to something which, although logistically odd if taken too literally, doesn’t sound too bad: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

Lent 4

Lesson 1 (alternate): Judges 4:4-9.

Here’s an example of how the lectionary doesn’t always match up with the practice of the church. Here in the UK, it’s Mother’s Day today – more properly, Mothering Sunday. (If my mum’s reading this, hello, happy day-we-don’t-celebrate-because-we’re-Quakers. Which is every day, actually.) If you’ve been in a shop or seen any advertising over the last few weeks, it’s pretty much impossible to miss this. This week my Brownies made mother’s day crafts; they’ve been invited, as they are every year, to a church service, at which they will probably hand out bunches of flowers to any mothers in the congregation (and sometimes any spare middle-aged or elderly women; actually bearing-and-raising-of-children isn’t, in my observation, always a strict requirement on these occasions although it’s clearly strongly recommended.)

The compilers of the Inclusive Language Lectionary may have had this in mind when they looked at this week’s readings from 2 Chronicles, Ephesians and John and decided to add the option of a passage from Judges about Deborah. There is, as the Jewish Women’s Encyclopaedia says, “no other heroine like Deborah in the Hebrew Bible”. She is shown as – among other things – a mother, a prophet, and a military commander. I am not sure – as I said last week about Jesus – that this makes for a brilliant role model as such, but I suppose it’s got to better than nothing, which is what you often find when you search Bible stories for female role models.

Lent 3

Gospel: John 2:13-22.

(I’ve added the NIV as a parallel here because it helps gives references to where such-and-such was written.)

This story came up in a recent Facebook discussion when a friend of mine posted this picture:

The heading

WWJD: more options than some people think

That conversation quickly went off into details about what the Greek means, which is fascinating but not what I want to focus on today. The question which intrigues me about this story, within a Christian context where Jesus is meant to be a role model – where the answer to a question like ‘What would Jesus do?’ is expected to point to what we should do – is: is this the sort of thing we should do?

It doesn’t seem very Quakerly, does it? Not just property damage – turning over tables – and theft – throwing coins around – but actual violence with whips. (It’s often depicted as against people, as in this image, but the text seems to say that it’s ‘both the sheep and the cattle’ which get driven out – which seems a little more reasonable, and it does pre-date the era of animal rights. That said, it still seems pretty violent and likely to hurt people as well.) If this is one of the answers to ‘what would Jesus do?’, is that the right question?

Other interpretations of the story have included its use in a war memorial – sculptor Eric Gill felt that merchants and money men were responsible for war, and produced this carving for the University of Leeds:

a relief carving in stone shows Jesus, towards the right in robes and carrying a whip, chasing merchants in modern dress towards the left.

Gill’s war memorial

Using a whip still seems unlikely to contribute to peace, even if this updated version might, taken as a metaphor, be pointing us in a helpful direction.

Lent 2

Lesson 1: Genesis 17:1-10 and 15-19

Gospel: Mark 8:31-38

I’m finding both of these passages irritating. I’m not sure whether it’s that I’m in a bad temper anyway, or if there is something genuinely bothering about them. At first I thought I might write about how Sarah is treated in this story – Abraham gets to make a covenant, she gets to have a baby – but I don’t think it’s that, or at least not just that. (After all, Abraham has to have surgery, too, so it’s not like it’s all fun and games for him.) In a way, both this and the gospel passage are about giving up your life, your freedom and choices, for God – an appropriate theme for Lent, and perhaps one you’d expect me to kick back against, being as I am your common or garden lazy selfish so-and-so.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Who’d want to be a follower of his when that’s the advert? The best way to get people to follow you is usually ‘Come this way and I’ll give you some cake.’ Of course, not following isn’t, apparently, going to do you any good either, “For those who want to save their life will lose it.”

Lent 1

Gospel: Mark 1:9-15.

There are three stories in this section, each of which is more familiar to me in the expanded versions provided in the other synoptic Gospels. (Compare the baptism in Matthew 3:13-17, the temptation at the beginning of Luke 4, and the beginning of the ministry in Matthew 4:12-17, for example.)

In this very plain telling, the temptation narrative takes on a kind of minimalist clarity. It is the Spirit who sends Jesus out into the wilderness, and it is the angels who wait on him – it seems to me from these signs that the experience of being tempted is sanctioned by God. In some way, it must be, if not good, then part of the larger plan. It’s tempting (did you see what I did there?) to read it as a test, a kind of exam which Jesus has to pass before he’s allowed to begin his ministry. I feel like there’s something off about that reading, though; setting tests in relationships isn’t actually very helpful (‘I’ll only stay friends with X if they turn up on time/buy me a birthday present/stop telling that joke’), and God has clearly already established the relationship with Jesus – in only the last paragraph, we heard God say to him, ‘You are my Son’. So instead, perhaps it’s more like a teaching, an experience which Jesus needs to go through in order to begin his ministry. This seems plausible; people who have suffered or been tempted themselves are often more compassionate towards others undergoing the same struggle.

In this telling, the wilderness sounds like a mythical place, populated by Satan and wild beasts and angels. Presumably it was the real desert, but I think we can equally well presume that it needn’t have been, that Satan and angels can find one anywhere. Wild beasts have a good go at getting everywhere although of course some species do better than others. (I suspect that the wild beasts we picture when we read this story are a bit more dramatic than, say, magpies and squirrels, although I have no idea how historically accurate my imaginings are.) The key feature of the wilderness from an emotional point of view seems to be that one is without human company. Neither wild beasts nor angels seem likely to replace a chat with a friend!

That said, there is clearly much to be learnt from all of them. Perhaps this is my Druid background coming through, or those early lessons about birdwatching, but I find a lot to learn from the wild beasts – even the magpies and wagtails and squirrels and suchlike that can be spotted in the city – and I can even point to places in the gospels where Jesus draws those kinds of lessons (Luke 12:24, for example). Similarly, the conduct of the angels must have something to teach, and from Satan – if you know what you are watching – presumably you can learn how not to do it.

Ash Wednesday

I am becoming clearer about the shape of this blog project. I keep thinking, sort of accidentally, of it as a project which is about the Bible. It isn’t, or isn’t really, or is only accidentally about the Bible; really, it’s about reading the texts, the ways in which we – but mostly me – relate to them. It’s about reading and reception. So here’s a post about reading (part of one of) the extracts offered for today.

Gospel: Matthew 6:16-21.

I’m pretty sure that it directs contradicts this if you decide what to give up for Lent and then go on your blog or on Facebook and announce it. It might be helpful to you – peer-group accountability does often help with will-power – but it can also seem like bragging, or be hurtful to others. (Consider the effects of all those ‘I’m giving up chocolate’ posts on someone who already has some form of disordered eating.) So I’m not going to tell you what I’m doing for Lent – although I will note that plenty of Quakers, who ‘don’t do’ times and seasons, were talking about pancakes yesterday.

(You’ll notice that I haven’t given up ‘writing blog posts’, though. I did consider it.)

What about the second part of this passage? Well known words: do not store up your treasures on earth… It has to be said that I do, in fact, store up treasures on earth, in lots of ways: I have an ISA and a bookcase and a purse; I also have a list of friends on Facebook and a CV and some poems which I memorised. Are those on earth, though? Especially if heaven is here and now, the distinction between the two doesn’t seem so clear. Some items on the CV, for example, seem quite earthly – getting published in such-and-such as journal or working at so-and-so is of this world. But what about the less tangible things which might also feature? Does spiritual work – like facilitating workshops on religious matters or running a study group or serving your (spiritual) community – count up anything towards the heavenly list? Although it might appear on my earthly CV, it seems to me that a lot of the benefits of these activities – the deepening of my own prayer life and (hopefully!) that of others, for example – might be ‘treasures in heaven’.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Reading this, I wonder where my heart really is. When I’m not interested in my work, I often say that ‘my heart’s not in it today’ – and yet, if you look at the pattern of my life overall, my heart is very much in my work and I’ve placed my work at the heart of my life. Fortunately for me, this has been possible for the time being, and my present work takes me towards, rather than away from, my spiritual life. I can’t say that was true when I was on the till in M&S or struggling through ESA applications!

Last Sunday after Epiphany: On Not Understanding the Transfiguration

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9.

I don’t know what to make of this story – of the Transfiguration – at all. Mark’s point in telling it seems to be to clarify his understanding of the role of Jesus, to give the command ‘listen to’ Jesus directly from the mouth of God, and to make links through time: forwards to the resurrection, and backwards to Moses and Elijah. It puts Jesus firmly in a certain company, and in the context of the Jewish tradition: he is accepted by Elijah and Moses, who are talking to him when they appear. (The three disciples who are present don’t seem to hear what is said, and Peter’s next comment is to my mind a bit of a non sequitur – and it is followed by the information that ‘they did not know what to say’ which makes it somewhat strange that he speaks at all.)

The closest I can come to relating this story to my own experience is, frankly, not that close at all; and because the only experiences I have had which do seem to relate to this one came in contexts and have content which I would call Pagan, I’m hesitant to take that step. Is my – vivid, memorable, life-enhancing – experience of a visit by/vision of a Goddess really relevant to understanding a text which is so clearly set within the Jewish/emerging Christian tradition? One of the ideas which I spend a lot of time challenging in my academic work is the claim, made by many Christian pluralists and Quaker universalists and some Pagans too, that all religions are somehow the same, or that they all ‘really’ teach the same thing, or that all religious experience is of ‘the same thing’. These various claims tend to get bundled up together, and all of them are used as an excuse to claim that X from religion Y is ‘the same is’ A from religion B. I’m sceptical about that. Why should we think that, for example, the Inner Buddha Nature and the Inner Light are the same thing?

I don’t, then, want to assume that seeing Moses and Elijah having a chat with Jesus on a mountain is anything like meeting the Goddess in a garden. On the other hand, when I try to imagine what it would be like to stand on that mountain with Jesus and see Elijah and Moses join him, all I have to fill in the gaps, to provide the emotional resonance, is my own experience. Like an artist  who dresses the people of the Bible in the clothes of the artist’s own time, all I’ve got is my own personal Quaker-Pagan-a bit Buddhist-culturally Christian experience to help me understand this picture.

And from that point of view, the last bit of this story – the command not to tell anyone what they had seen until some future point which, although obvious to a reader now, couldn’t have been clear to the disciples at that time – does make a kind of emotional sense. It’s often a long time between a striking spiritual experience and the stage where one can discuss it freely with others.

Epiphany 8: letter and Spirit

Lesson 2: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6.

The last part of this passage is well-known to Quakers – or at least, it sort of is. It was quoted in 1656 by some Elders who met at Balby, and the paragraph containing that quotation (but not the rest of the text) now appears in the introduction to Advices and Queries. When a Friend today cites this, then, saying – of something or other as they are prone to do – “Well, I’m sure we can interpret this quite broadly; after all, the letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life,” there are two ‘hidden’ texts to which they allude, and their audience may not have read either of them. (If you wish to do so, you can read the Epistle of the Elders at Balby online.)

Incidentally, I had occasion to read Alastair Heron’s 2001 pamphlet ‘The Future of British Quakers’ recently, and he has some pretty stiff things to say about Friends who – in his view mistakenly – take this quotation from the beginning of Advices and Queries and apply it to the whole of Quaker Faith and Practice, at least some of which should be prescriptive. I’m not sure this is as terrible as he makes it sound, but perhaps we are in need of some clarifications – either to accept the authority of Yearly Meeting or to acknowledge our tendency to a more area-based or even congregational model.

Returning to the Biblical text, it is immediately obvious that this familiar quotation is part of a much longer sentence which is actually talking about competence and ministry. God has made Paul and his companions – it’s not quite clear how broad the ‘we’ is meant to be – ministers of a new covenant which is not of the letter but of the spirit. The contrast here is with the previous covenant given to the people of Israel, a covenant known to the people of Paul’s time in a written form and unfortunately depicted by some, then and now, as at least dusty and dry and perhaps at worst dangerous to the spiritual life. The supercessionist and even anti-Semitic assumptions involved in that approach certainly make me want to question it.

One level on which Quakers specifically might want to ask those questions is about the relationship between the letter and the Spirit. When I taught Quaker Faith and Practice to undergraduates, I tried to explain how the book and the community – specifically, the Yearly Meeting – relate, and I ended up drawing a big circle of arrows on the whiteboard: the Yearly Meeting approves the book and all changes to the book, and the book tells you how to run the Yearly Meeting, which approves the changes to the book, which tells you how… you get the idea. But on what basis does the Yearly Meeting change the book? Well, it (and its many committees, several of which will have been involved in producing and recommending the change which is brought to the Yearly Meeting) uses the Quaker business method, in which discernment around an issue takes place in the context of worship, with the aim of discovering the will of God for us now – with the help of the Spirit.

Whatever we think of the status of Biblical texts (although I think it would be possible to hold a suitably adjusted version of the view which I am about to describe), the Quaker texts such as Advices and Queries quite distinctly claim to reflect a discernment process which incorporates the inspiration of the Spirit as She spoke to us. (Standard disclaimer: not all Friends would be comfortable with that language.) There is, therefore, no clear distinction between the ‘letter’ and the ‘Spirit’ – the letters which we have reflect the Spirit as our Meeting understood it, and perhaps life can be given through them.

Maybe a clearer understanding of this would even help with the problem Alastair Heron mentioned.