A letter, not a compendium of theology: Paul writes to the Romans

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The first of two posts on Romans.

Rome’s chariot race track was already an established feature in Paul’s day.

Romans is Paul’s longest letter (just beating 1 Corinthians to the punch). It’s worth noting that this is why it comes first in the New Testament: Paul’s letters are organised in order of decreasing length. The Sunday lectionary contains readings from all its chapters except 2 and 3, so we need to spend a bit of time on it.

The number of readings reflects both its length, and the way it has been thought of, especially since the Reformation, as the most important of Paul’s letters, and a kind of compendium of his thought. Despite that long tradition, most people nowadays go at least part way to accepting that it is a response to specific circumstances, just like Paul’s other letters. It is written for a particular situation, not as a timeless treatise of theology. Different scholars give more or less weight to a whole range of different reasons, so I am going simply to outline my own speculation, which I think helps make sense of the letter’s content.

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A radical faith in a faithful Messiah: some themes in Paul's letters

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The second of two posts introducing Paul.

In the previous post, I looked at some of the general issues involved in reading Paul’s letters. In today’s blog, I want to explore a couple of key themes. There are core ideas which crop up repeatedly in Paul’s thinking; but the specific ways he develops them belong to the different contexts of each individual letter.

One idea which crops up in a number of contexts is usually called “justification by faith”. Since some people suggest this is Paul’s main, only, or central theme, we need to spend a little bit of time looking at it here, while saving many other themes for individual letters. It’s probably also worth repeating my previously given health warning: other views of Paul are available, and here we enter one of the more controversial (and occasionally rather bad-tempered) areas of both modern scholarship and church-dividing doctrine.

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Chalk it up on Epiphany

A happy and blessed feast of the Epiphany to you. There is a tradition, which seems to have arisen in central Europe in the Middle Ages, of blessing chalk at Epiphany, which is then used by families to mark the doorways of their homes. It is, near the New Year, a prayer for and celebration of Christ’s blessing. This tradition is becoming increasingly common everywhere, and among many denominations.

What surprised me, on looking for texts to use, is that there don’t seem to be that many around. So in this short Epiphany post, I thought I would first of all summarise the practice, and then provide a simple form of prayer, both for the chalk blessing, and then the prayers at home.

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Paul: a health warning

This post is in the series Rite Reading. (1 of 2 introducing Paul)

I expect this to be the first of two posts introducing Paul. In the second, I want to take a look at some of his characteristic themes, but today, I want to renew a health warning I have occasionally mentioned elsewhere. Everything you read here is just my opinion. I hope my opinions are well-grounded in the text and the world it was written in. I hope they provide good, illuminating and helpful ways of reading the text. I hope they help you read it, for yourself, and to others, with fresh understanding. But there are always other opinions available.

This variety of views is nowhere more obvious than it is with regard to Paul’s writings. One of the earliest comments we have on them comes in the Second Letter of Peter:

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We are an Easter people: the Acts of the Apostles

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Triptych of Pentecost by the Florentine artist Orcagna (Andrea di Cione)
Via Wikimedia Commons. As in most early representations, the Mother of the Lord is central.

As I turn to a book that is unique in the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, I note that the lectionary uses it in a unique way. The church reads the stories of the earliest churches during the Sundays of Easter in place of a reading from the Old Testament. My title reflects that: it comes from a saying frequently attributed to St Augustine “We are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song.”1

The Acts of the Apostles stands in a genre of its own among canonical literature, though writing legendary “Acts of …” various apostles became something of a literary pastime among the early Christians. It clearly shares a great many of the themes of Luke’s Gospel, to which it forms the sequel. If Luke’s gospel was largely the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, the Acts of the Apostles is the story of how Jesus’s word makes the journey from Jerusalem to Rome.

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Truth in the dock, the Spirit at the bar: John's distinctive themes

This post is in the series Rite Reading. (2 of 2 posts on John)

In the first of these two posts on John’s gospel, I looked at some of the ways he differed from the other gospels. We saw how much he organised his writing around Jewish festivals in Jerusalem, and also took a look at the problems his language created for Christian attitudes to the Jewish people. Today I want to go on to explore, especially, two key themes that are have a significant impact in the life of the church and are well reflected in the lectionary’s choices.

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Retelling the Jesus story after long meditation: John's gospel

This post is in the series Rite Reading. (1 of 2 posts on John)

I expect this to be the first of two posts on John’s gospel as I resume this series after Christmas. But anyone coming to this version of the story after reading the other three immediately sees significant differences in both style and content. Short pithy sayings are out, and long meditations are in. There are no exorcism stories from Jesus’s ministry, but the cross is portrayed as a casting out of Satan, described as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31). Disciples who occur as significant characters in the synoptic gospels, like James and John the sons of Zebedee, don’t get a mention, while others like Philip and Thomas, who only appear as names in the first three gospels, get speaking parts in John.

St John: one of four paintings of the evangelists in Venice’s San Sebastiano church by Paolo Veronese. Via Wikimedia Commons.
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