St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Saturday, 24 March 2012

March 25 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 25                                NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Fifth Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Theme: As this is Passion Sunday one possibility would be to read the entire Passion narrative this Sunday; in which case there would be no sermon.  My practice has been to do this on Palm Sunday as an appropriate overture to Holy Week.  For this Sunday, with these readings, I am going with "Facing our own Mortality".

Introduction.  This is one of those Sundays where the connection between the three readings is not immediately apparent, at least to me.  That problem is compounded by the difficulty in comprehending the epistle with its mysterious reference to the order of Melchizedek.  So perhaps we have to take each reading as we find it and, as it were, lay them on the table and see where they take us.  The first lesson fits in with all I have been saying about spiritual growth and maturity over the last few months.  Jeremiah heralds the coming of a new stage of spirituality, moving from outer observance to inner conviction.  Christians see the fulfilment of this prophesy in the Paschal Mystery, beginning with Christ's death and reaching its conclusion at Pentecost with the gift of the Spirit to all believers.  The epistle, in part, offers the basis for our "doctrine of calling": this is made clearer if we begin today's reading at verse 4.   No one takes this honour upon himself; he must be called by God just as Aaron was.  At the heart of this epistle is the author's continuous struggle to hold together both the humanity and divinity of Christ.  This duality comes through in the gospel reading, where Jesus can think of his death as glorifying God, while still shuddering in his humanity at the thought of the suffering he must undergo.        

Background.  This may be a good opportunity to reflect on the difficulty so many people find in facing up to their own mortality.  Whatever else we are to make of the three occasions on which Jesus predicted his own death, it is clear that he is talking about his own mortality.  One of the things that has struck me time and time again in my ministry is how rarely people who are terminally ill – and their families – are able to talk openly and honestly about that death.  Perhaps even more strangely, I have found a similar inability even in young healthy people: think how many euphemisms we use when we do broach the subject.  Very rarely do we talk of "dying" – we much prefer "passing".  My siblings and I used to dine out on the story of when my grandmother talked to us about the day when it would be time for her to "go along the passage".  Of course, my sisters, being older and wiser than me, knew what she meant and never let me forget that I thought Granny was talking about going to the toilet!  I attended a funeral service this week in which the deceased was said to have "now completed her journey", but I did not notice any reference to the fact that she had died.

Jesus did not see the need for such evasion.  On each occasion that he referred to his death he made it clear what he meant, particularly in the versions recorded in the Synoptic gospels: in John the language is characteristically more indirect.  But compare his discussion with the disciples about their sick friend Lazarus: John 11:11-15.  Subtlety led to confusion with those men!]  So Jesus did not talk of his own "passing" – much less that he was going to "fall asleep".  He said he would be killed.  But he also said something else.  He said he would be raised again.  In other words, whenever he talked about his death he also talked about his resurrection.  We can't have one without the other.  Our own mortality is only bearable within the context of resurrection: conversely, within that context there is no reason to fear it or refuse to face the fact of it.  For Christians, death loses its sting, not by denying its reality, but by denying its finality.

Jeremiah.  Jeremiah may not have the poetic gifts of Isaiah, but for sheer human pathos he takes the prize.  He is the most emotional of all the prophets, often trying unsuccessfully to resist God's promptings because they always led him into conflict.  But today Jeremiah has an opportunity to share some good news with the people.  God is intending to enter a new covenant with the people.  It is radically different from the old covenant that was backed by laws and ordinances.  It required obedience; it required knowledge of the laws, knowledge that had to be learned from others.  But the new covenant will involve internal guidance; we might call it conscience or intuition, and it will be available to all.  There are echoes here surely of the old story from the time of Moses where a complaint was made that people outside the inner circle were prophesying.  Moses squashed the complainant by expressing the wish that all God's people might prophesy – that is, the Spirit might be given to all people.  [Numbers 11:24-30; see also Joel 2:28-32.] The new instruction will bind the heart as well as the mind: to know God requires both intellectual and spiritual faculties.

Taking It Personally.

·        Recall an occasion when you have been prompted by your conscience to do, or refrain from doing something.  Ponder that occasion in the light of this passage: can you accept that for "conscience" Holy Spirit can be substituted without changing the meaning of what happened?

·        Read the last sentence of this passage again.  In what way is it connected to the preceding verses?  Does it mean that, once our sins are forgiven, we will know God in this new way, or is there more to it than that?

Hebrews.  As stated above, this is a difficult passage, but is perhaps best understood in the light of the struggle the author is clearly having throughout this letter to hold in tension the humanity and the divinity of Christ.  He seems to have a clear picture of God and Christ as separate Beings, the former being superior to the latter.  Thus God calls Christ to be a priest – Christ did not claim the honour for himself.  The analogy here is with human priesthood, a ministry to which we are called, not self-appointed.  Then he turns to the more familiar relationship within the unity of the Trinity – Father and Son.  By verse 7 he's very definitely back in the human realm, "Christ" and "Son" being replaced with "Jesus".  The picture he draws of Jesus is very human, a man praying for his life, and learning obedience through suffering.  But then he concludes with another reference to the eternal priesthood in the "order of Melchizedek".  Remembering that this letter dates from the late first or early second century, the author's struggle with the true identity of Jesus no doubt reflects the struggle within the whole Church at the time, a struggle not "concluded" until the settling of the Creeds in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Taking It Personally.

·        Reflect on verse 4.  What has God called you to be and do?

·        Remind yourself that you, too, are a son or daughter of God.  Now re-read verse 5 as it is addressed to you.

·        Compare your prayer life and experience with that of Jesus as summarised in verse 7.

·        What have you learned through suffering in your life?  Can you now give thanks for that suffering because of the learning you gained from it?

John.  According to Jewish belief the "Day of the Lord" would begin with the ingathering of the Gentiles (that is, the Gentiles would flock to Israel seeking the Lord).  Jesus seems to have that in mind at the beginning of this passage.  The arrival of the Greek inquirers represents the ingathering of the Gentiles.  This follows two significant events; his anointing at Bethany, and his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  Notice that the ranks seem to have closed around Jesus at this point.  The Greeks approach Philip rather than Jesus, and even Philip doesn't seem to have direct access to Jesus.  He goes to Andrew, and Andrew takes him to Jesus.  St John's theology is very much on display here, as Jesus refers to his "glorification".  For John Christ is glorified on the cross (not through resurrection or ascension).  See also verse 28.  Verse 24 emphasises the idea of death being a prerequisite for new life.  The voice from heaven reminds us again of Christ's baptism and of his transfiguration.  This time the crowd hear something, but they are uncertain what they have heard.  Was it something natural (thunder) or angelic?  Once again we have a reference to Christ being "lifted up", a phrase we struck last week in chapter 3 of this gospel with Jesus' reference to the snake on a pole in the Book of Numbers.  All these allusions are wonderful examples of the way St John weaves different threads and themes in and out of his narrative, more like a composer of music than an author.

Taking It Personally.

·        How good are you at pondering your own mortality?  Do you see in your death an opportunity to glorify God?  Are you afraid of death?

·        As we get ever closer to Good Friday, which one verse of this passage strikes you as being particularly significant?  Why?


Friday, 16 March 2012

March 1 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 1                      NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Theme:  I'm going for 'Looking to the Lord', for reasons that I hope are fairly obvious, given the first lesson and the gospel.  Even the epistle ties in quite well this week.

Introduction.  The three readings have a common pattern.  The people have turned away from God, are rebelling, are dead in their sins, or are at least in great peril of being lost.  Something must be done, and that something (from the human perspective) is to look to God for help (otherwise known, especially in Lent, as repentance).  Thus, the Israelites in the wilderness are having one of their blue periods.  The Edomites won't give them permission to pass through their land, and Moses has accepted that refusal.  The result of that policy is to prolong the journey in the wilderness still further, and the people have run out of patience.  They turn on God and Moses, only to be attacked by poisonous snakes.  That concentrates their minds very rapidly, and they seek God's intervention.  The Ephesians are reminded of their past sinful condition, from which God has already rescued them through Jesus the Christ.  Jesus teaches the people of his time that he is to be the one to whom they look for God's salvation.

Background.  I have tried, largely without success, to find some helpful material on this very strange story from the Book of Numbers, but the commentators seem largely uninterested.  Were snakes common in this area: in other words, is it likely that they were attacked by snakes, and a theological story has been built on a factual basis?  Or is the whole thing, as some commentators have suggested, a parable, to be interpreted symbolically?  There are some echoes of the story of the plagues in Egypt, although none of those plagues involved snakes.  The prelude to the plagues included a demonstration of power by which Aaron's rod was turned into a serpent; and when the local magicians imitated the 'trick', Aaron's serpent ate theirs.  Hence, the association of a snake and a rod or stick.

And to my ear, at least, there are similarities between this story and the story of Naaman, the Syrian army commander: in both cases a remedy is provided that defies logic or scientific explanation.  It operates through obedience or faith.  The author of the Fourth Gospel sees this as a prototype of Christ being raised up to provide life for those who look to him, as the bitten Israelites looked to the bronze snake.  Whether or not Jesus himself drew this analogy, as the gospel records, is open to debate.

In favour of understanding the story as a parable is the role that snakes/serpents play in the Bible.  The classic example is the serpent in the Garden of Eden, symbolic of Satan, the embodiment of evil.  Scholars have pointed out that in many of the surrounding civilizations of the time, snakes were objects of worship; so that the Hebrew view of them as manifestations of evil may be linked with the Israelites' growing belief in monotheism – or, at the very least, of the idea that their God, Yahweh, was more powerful than any other gods, whether or not they took the form of snakes.  Aaron's rod-turned-serpent eating the local versions would seem to lend support to this interpretation.

The analogy with Christ drawn in the gospel passage is certainly a good example of the Christian practice of searching the (Old Testament) Scriptures for clues as to what Jesus was all about and on about.  How far we are intended to push it isn't clear.  The bronze snake is, of course, without venom, yet is an antidote to the venom of the real snakes.  In the same way, Jesus is without sin yet is the antidote to the sin of the world.  [Here, perhaps, we should pause and remember that St Paul said of Jesus that he who was without sin became sin for our sake.  We might say, on the cross he became the snake for our sake.]  Those who look at the bronze snake will live: those who look to Jesus will have life.    However, we want to put it, the basic equation is equally astonishing:

Snake [devil] on a stick = Christ [God] on a cross!

Numbers.  The story so far is important.  Aaron has recently died, and his office has been passed to his son, Eleazar.  Thirty days of mourning were observed by the Israelites.  Then one of the local clans attacked the Israelites, some of whom were captured.  The Israelites appealed to Yahweh and he gave them total victory over their attackers.  Yet here they are having another grump session, which get worse each time.  They complain against God and against Moses.  They complain about the decision to bring them out of Egypt, convinced that they will die in the desert.  They complain that there is no bread or water, and, far worse, they reject the manna, the divine providence offered to them (symbol of God's grace).  Then come the snakes, sent by God; they are venomous and many who are bitten die.  This brings the people to repentance, and they ask Moses to ask God to take away the snakes.  Two things here.  First, they did not cry out to God themselves; rather they put their request through Moses, whom they had previously criticised, thereby recognising Moses' special relationship with God as intercessor.  Secondly, God did not take the snakes away; he provided a rather weird antidote for the venomous bites.  There is something important here: God does not remove temptations from our lives, but empowers us to overcome them through faith.  We can well imagine the hard-nosed, no-nonsense people of the time dismissing the superstitious nonsense of a bronze snake on a stick and refusing to look at it.  Those who believed God's assurance looked at the snake and lived.

Taking It Personally.

·        As we continue our journey through Lent, continue with your own spiritual stock-take.  Have you grumbled against God recently?  Do you sometimes hark back to the 'good old days', or is every day a new gift from God for you?

·        Are you superstitious?  Have you ever had a lucky charm of some sort?  Do you 'cross fingers' or 'touch wood'?  In what way would those actions differ from looking at the bronze snake on a stick?

·        In what way would they differ from looking to a cross or crucifix for comfort or assistance?

·        Can you think of an occasion when God answered your prayer in a way that was different from what you had asked for?

·        Are any 'snakes' (temptations, situations, difficult people) trying to bite you at the moment?  Ask God for help.

Ephesians.  This passage follows a similar structure, although it is set in the past tense.  The people had been turned away from God, caught up in the usual human secular mindset.  St Paul talks of following "the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air".  A modern translation may be "the spirit of the age".  They were living their lives at the instinctual level, "gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts".  God in his grace has rescued them, bringing them from a state of death in their sins to one of new life in Christ.  Notice particularly his use of the past tense in verse 6; the claim is not that they will one day (the other side of the grave) be raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms, but that they are already in those realms!  They (and we) have been re-made by God to undertake the works he had already planned.

Taking It Personally.

·        This is one of those incredibly rich passages that need to be pondered word by word.  Take your time over it, savouring each word and phrase.

·        Do you realise that you ARE NOW seated with Christ in the heavenly realms?  What difference does that make to your life here and now?

·        What good works has God prepared in advance for you to do?

·        End this session with prayers of thanksgiving.

John.  The author seems to lose the plot a bit here!  Clearly Jesus is talking to Nicodemus up to the end of verse 12, and quite probably up to the end of verse 15.  But by then Nicodemus seems to have faded from the picture, and it would seem that the dialogue ends at that point.  Verses 16-21 seem to be an interpolation by the author of his own teaching.  Be that as it may, the thrust of the teaching is clear and important.  The general attitude of the New Testament is that human beings are more sinned against than sinners: that human nature is held in thrall by the powers and influences that rebel against God, the snakes of our own deserts.  So we need rescuing rather than punishing.  This passage is key in spelling this out.  God has intervened, not because he has had enough (as in the time of the Flood) but because of his great love of the world.  His purpose is to save the world not to pass judgment on it.  All we have to do is accept the love of our rescuer and follow him out of our captive state.  Of course, we are free to refuse his gracious offer, in which case we will suffer the consequences of our own choice, and not as punishment by God for disobedience.  Why might we want to refuse?  John introduces one of his favourite images.  Jesus is the light that makes all things visible – he shows us as we really are.  Those who cannot bear the thought of being shown up turn away from the light in favour of darkness.

Taking It Personally.

·        How realistic is this view of sin?  Are we really victims in need of rescue, or are we perpetrators deserving of punishment.  Read the court news in the ODT, then address this issue again.

·        Continue a process of self-examination, this time using verses 19-21 as a guide.  Is there something you have done, said, or thought that you would not want to have brought out into the open?

·        Spend some time with a crucifix or a picture of Christ on the cross.  Slowly recite verse 14 several times.  Do you believe in him?


Friday, 9 March 2012

March 11 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Third Sunday in Lent

March 11                                NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

Theme:  "The Cleansing of the Temple", is the obvious one, at least if we are focussed only on the gospel reading.  But I'm thinking of something to do with "The Shaking of the Foundations", which, apart from anything else, has the virtue of being the title of a famous collection of sermons by German-American theologian, Paul Tillich.  Or, more colloquially, "Upsets and Upheavals".

Introduction.  The common theme in our three readings may be a clash of mindsets.  We begin with the so-called Ten Commandments, long believed to be the foundations (yes, there's that word again) of decent living.  St Paul then talks of the foolishness and wisdom of God being, as it were, a mirror-image of the wisdom and foolishness of human beings.  And in the riotous scenes of the gospel passage the clash is between those who run the Temple as a business (they probably called it living in the real world or being practical), and Jesus the Invader trying to remind them that they have departed from their core business.  Once again, there is a disturbingly modern ring to these issues.

Background. Today is the first anniversary of the appalling earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan last year; surely, one of the most potent symbols of how everything can be almost literally turned upside-down in an instant, never to be the same again.  Meanwhile, the brave Bishop of Christchurch has triggered outrage among those who believe that the only response is to put humpty-dumpty back together again (whatever the expense) and carry on as if nothing has happened.  This week I have spent a lot of time pondering these horrific natural disasters, and their ongoing aftermaths, in the light of this extraordinary gospel story.  What light does this passage throw on the issue of whether or not to rebuild the former cathedral in Christchurch?  [Please note: it is not a cathedral now; it has been de-consecrated and is no longer the "Bishop's seat".]

The first thing I want to draw attention to is the placing of this story in St John's gospel compared with the other three gospels.  They all agree that the episode took place in Holy Week, following Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday.  In narrative terms, this makes far more sense; it could then be seen as the final straw by the religious leaders who then decide that this dangerous rebel has to be executed before he can do any more damage to the seat of their power.

That St John has lifted this story out of that context and used it earlier in his gospel underlines the fact that he is not interested in the chronological narrative; he has something else in mind.  In effect, he has placed this story immediately after his account of the Wedding at Cana (missing from the other three gospels) to second the motion moved by that first story.  Just as turning the ritual water into gospel wine makes the point that Jesus is replacing 'the old ritual', so Jesus' action in the temple is seen as having far greater significance than a simple argument over where these business operations should be conducted and where they should not.  Jesus is seen as overturning, not just the money-lenders' tables, but the whole edifice of sacrificial procedures and rituals that were at the heart of Jewish religious practice.

Look at it from the point-of-view of the Temple authorities for a moment.  Faithful Jews were required to come to the Temple regularly, and make various sacrifices of produce and livestock.  To get there, many pilgrims would have had to travel many miles over many days on foot.  It would not have been practical for them to bring with them the animals or cereals they would offer in sacrifice at the Temple.  The obvious thing to do was to have such things available for purchase at the Temple.  Thus the Temple necessarily became a huge "farmers-market" for visiting pilgrims.  It would have had a huge turnover, providing employment for a huge work-force.  Of course, there would have been corruption, rip-offs, cartel price-fixing and all the other creative accounting techniques that Wall Street and other such markets  are known for today; and it is generally argued that it was these fragrant abuses that so incensed Jesus.  Perhaps, but that's not what the text says, is it?  Jesus says the Temple is the dwelling-place of God ("my father's house"), and they have turned it into "a market" – a place of commerce, whether honest or dishonest in its practice.  But the Temple could not carry on any other way; so Jesus must be understood as rejecting the whole Temple programme of sacrifice and worship.

Now think of the issue that blew up around the altar in the chapel at Teschemakers, and that which has blown up around Bishop Victoria's announcement that her former cathedral will be demolished.  Can we not see the same clash of mindsets at work in both those issues as we see in the gospel incident?  To Fr Mark Chamberlain and those who support him, the altar is for worship; it is no longer required for that purpose in its present position, and so it makes sense to move it to a new position where it can again be used for that purpose.  To his opponents (who love to use the word "sacrilege"!) the altar is a work of art, its purpose now being to look beautiful.  Similarly, we now have heritage buffs talking about the former cathedral being "the aesthetic and spiritual heart of Christchurch".  Never mind that Roman Catholics and other denominations might find focus on the former Anglican cathedral distressing; and never mind all the other churches (including the Anglican ones for which Bishop Victoria and her team have the same responsibility as they have for their former cathedral).  And hang the cost, apparently!

To insist on the former cathedral being rebuilt and restored, against the wishes of the Bishop and her team, is to forget that a building can only be a cathedral if the Church uses it as a cathedral.  Once it ceases to be "the Father's house", once it ceases to be a house of prayer and worship, it ceases to be a cathedral and becomes, at most, a building that looks like a cathedral.  When told she must be accountable for her decisions, Bishop Victoria responded magnificently:  "I am accountable to my God."  If we weren't in the Season of Lent, I would add, "Alleluia!  Alleluia!"  But I must content myself with, "Amen, Bishop.  Amen."

The idea of the Ten Commandments being the foundations of a decent society, and the erosion since the war of that idea, might be something else that could be explored this week.  If I were taking this approach, I think I might want to look at the way in which the "social" commandments seem to have fared rather better that the "godly" ones.  Again we have turned them on their head; in our tradition the godly ones come first because, only when we are in right relationship with God may we hope to be in right relationship with others.  Today, if anyone were to argue that the first four were as important, even more important, than the succeeding six, he or she would surely be laughed to scorn.

Exodus.  We are often told that people who have been "institutionalised for decades (say, in prison or in psychiatric care) find "freedom" very difficult because they are simply not used to making their own decisions.  The Israelites, freed from slavery, found themselves in that very position.  How do we live in freedom with our God?  The Ten Commandments were intended as a gift to the people to guide them in living a life of freedom.  The irony is, of course, that many today see such "rules" as inhibiting freedom, not creating it.

Taking It Personally.

·        Generally, do you see the Ten Commandments as "old hat" or just as relevant today as they ever have been?  Are some more relevant than others?  Which ones, and why?

·        Ponder the Fourth, relating to the Sabbath.  Is this out-of-place in a modern multicultural society, or is it a fine piece of social legislation providing for some sort of work-leisure balance?  In essence is it restrictive or empowering?

·         Which of the commandments are you most likely to break, and which of them are you least likely to break?

·        Recall the gloss that Jesus often put on these Commandments (looking at a woman lustfully equates to adultery, and losing your temper with someone amounts to murder).  Now res-it the previous question!

Corinthians. One of the earliest criticisms levelled against the new Christian faith was that it seemed to make recruits among the lower classes, women and the uneducated generally, whereas it made little progress among the intellectual elite.  Today's passage shows the gist of St Paul's brilliant response.  He does not deny the truth of the allegation; instead he contrasts the wisdom and foolishness of God with human understanding.  In effect, his brilliant intuition is that we grasp spiritual truth otherwise than through intellectual rigour.  Those of us who have spent (fruitless) years trying to figure it all out for ourselves know exactly what he is talking about here.  Of course, the idea of the incarnation makes no sense in human terms; of course, the idea of the resurrection offends our logical, scientifically-trained minds.  Yet, once we "get it" (and how that happens we can't always explain) we wonder what our intellectual objections were about!

Taking It Personally.

·        This is a good passage to ponder slowly, phrase by phrase, letting each word and thought sink in and take hold.

·        Are you the sort that wants miracles, or wants an intellectual explanation of something, before you believe?

·        Spend time with a crucifix, or a picture of Christ suffering on the cross.  As you look at it, repeat slowly, over and over again, "we preach Christ crucified"; or "the message of the cross is the power of God".

John.  It's not clear (at least to me) what purpose verse 12 is supposed to serve.  St John doesn't usually concern himself with such connecting verses, but perhaps on this occasion he wanted a pause to separate these two stories of power and drama.  So, after the wedding at Cana, Jesus had quality time with his family before launching his assault on the Temple.  John gives much of the same detail as the other gospel writers, but then uses the incident as the basis for yet another dialogue where the other party misunderstands Jesus and so talks past him.  This time the talk seems to be about the destruction and raising of the Temple, whereas (we are told rather intrusively) it was really about Jesus' death and resurrection.

Taking It Personally.

·       Another classic passage for praying imaginatively.  Put yourself in the Temple that day and watch the action.  Note your feelings as the drama unfolds.

·       Is this another side to Jesus' character – a less attractive side than usual?

·       What do you think he would feel about gift shops, cafes and other tourist services often found in our cathedrals today?

·       Imagine that you were called to give evidence at a trial of Jesus for wilful damage, or disorderly conduct or something.  Would you be more comfortable as a witness for the prosecution or the defence?  What would you say?

·       Is "righteous anger" okay – or is it anger dressed up to look nice?



Saturday, 3 March 2012

March 4 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Second Sunday in Lent

March 4                      NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Second Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-9:10  Note: The Lectionary gives 2 alternative readings for the gospel today – Mark 8:31-9:1 (Jesus predicts his death), or Mark 9:2-9 (The Transfiguration).  I'm combining the two in these notes.

Theme:  I'm going with "A Matter of Fact", for all sorts of reasons that will (I hope) become clear as you read on.  An alternative could be "A Matter of Faith", which, in the context of these reading, amounts to much the same thing.  In essence, we're about experiencing the mystery of the Divine Presence and believing in the truth of that experience.

Introduction.  The Feast of the Transfiguration is marked on 6 August, and it is often left for that date rather than using this story on this Second Sunday in Lent.  But there is good reason for having it here: it enables us to put it alongside last week's reading on the Lord's baptism and his temptation in the desert.  Thus we have the two experiences of "the voice from heaven", the first addressed to the Lord himself and affirming his divine and beloved state, and the second addressed to the disciples confirming for them the true identity of Jesus and calling upon them to listen to him.  Immediately before this passage about the Transfiguration two important things have happened as recorded in Mark's gospel.  First, Peter has made his famous confession of Jesus' identity ("You are the Christ"), and Jesus has started to speak of his forthcoming death and resurrection.  These two events and the Transfiguration together mark the turning-point of the whole gospel narrative, as the disclosure of Jesus' divinity becomes more and more into focus.

The other two readings also focus on an encounter with the Divine, and the response of faith required to it.  It is worth taking some time to read through the whole of the Abraham saga from chapter 12 through to chapter 18 and notice the series of encounters that Abram/Abraham has, all identified in the text with the recurring phrase "The Lord appeared to Abram".  On each such occasion the promises made to him are, in worldly terms, utter nonsense; yet on each occasion Abram was able to summon up enough faith to believe that with the Lord God all things are possible.  St Paul rather over-states Abram's unconditional faith – he had his questions from time to time – and his legitimate heir, Isaac, is given that name because it means "he laughs", reminding Abraham that Sarah was not the only one to laugh at the very thought that they could have a child between them at their stage of life!  Nevertheless, Abraham believed God enough to hang in there and see the first stage of God's astonishing promises come to pass.

Background:  Mark's gospel can be said to be the least embarrassing of the four to people of the scientific age.  There is no birth narrative to raise awkward questions about virgin births; there is no Ascension to challenge the laws of physics; and, at least in its original form, there was no resurrection narrative.  Mark does mention the Lord's baptism, but very briefly.  Were it not for this story of the Transfiguration all we would have to contend with in debate with our sceptical friends would be the miracle stories.  But the Transfiguration is there in all its glory.

That it can be troublesome to some was brought home to me some years ago in a Bible study group of priests who used to meet regularly in the Diocese of Wellington to discuss the readings set for the coming Sunday.  When we had this story coming up, one of our members expressed bewilderment as to why Mark put it in, when the gospel narrative was moving along so well until this point.  What purpose did Mark have in mind for suddenly inserting such a fanciful story?  This priest was genuinely amazed when the rest of us advanced the alternative theory that Mark had put this story in because it actually happened in much the way he describes.  Indeed, there is an argument for saying that Mark would have no other reason for inserting this story: why would he invent such a story if it wasn't true?

Interestingly, we don't seem to have the same concerns about stories in the Old Testament.  That may be because, in our hearts of hearts, we don't feel the same need to "believe" the Old Testament as we do the New Testament.  But can we really make sense of the New Testament without the background of the Old?  What is Paul talking about in today's lesson from Romans if we are not to believe the truth of the Abraham saga?  If Abraham is a mythic figure, what are we to make of the arguments between the Pharisees and Jesus about "our father Abraham", and who is and who is not a true descendant of his?  [See John 8:31-41.]

Above all, we must keep in mind that we are in the Season of Lent, a time of spiritual preparation and cleansing.  There is one connection for us between last week's gospel passage and this week's passages.  Jesus is baptised, and faces the temptations that confront all of us through our human nature and basic instincts.  He overcomes those temptations so fully that he is completely purified, an inner state of wholeness that manifests itself through the pure light that pours out of him in the Transfiguration.  Lent also gives us the context for joining today's two passages together.  Peter has just identified Jesus as the Messiah: Jesus responds by looking forward to his death and resurrection.  Peter objects, because he has in mind human concerns rather than the things of God.  The Transfiguration shows us the divine as well as the human nature of Christ.

Here is a passage from Thomas Merton to help us think some more about transfiguration:

At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness that is untouched by sin or illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark that belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.  This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, our indigence, as our sonship.  It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven.  It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.  I have no programme for this seeing.  It is only given.  But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

Genesis.  The saga of Abraham is told in chapters 12-25.  The narrative is given a chronological framework with a series of references to his age at various points in the story; for example, he is 75 when he is called to leave Haran, 86 when his illegitimate son Ishmael is born to the slave woman, Hagar, and 99 in today's story.  Each episode begins with the simple statement "The Lord appeared to Abraham".  Notice how simple that phrase is, until we think about it.  God "appears" to Abraham!  We are used to the books of the prophets where we are often told that "the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah" or whoever; but here we have the Lord God "appearing".  In most instances no attempt is made to amplify that, much less address our obvious question, what did he look like?  The important point is that over a period of 25 years or so God would "appear" to Abraham and make and confirm some astonishing promises to him.  Some of these promises came true in his lifetime, and these were amazing enough; but as we now look back through three to four millennia we can see the extraordinary way in which the story of those promises and their fulfilment has played out.  Today all Moslems, Jews and Christians honour Abraham as their ancestor in the faith; whole nations revere him: a man too old to sire a son has became indeed the source of many peoples.

Taking It Personally.

·        Circumcision was originally intended as a mark of identity as a Jew.  What marks you out as a Christian?

·        Do you want to be marked out as a Christian?

·        How do you recognise other people as Christians?

Romans.  Paul is tackling the issue of compliance with the Law as the way to God's favour.  He points out that Abraham pre-dates the giving of the Law, so that if righteousness comes from observance of the Law, Abraham could not have been righteousness.  Yet righteousness was "credited" to Abraham, a complicated legal term, which still turns up in our commercial and taxation law in the form of "Imputation".  It is not exactly a fiction – treating someone "as if" they had something they did not in fact have.  It is more like awarding someone fly-buys because they purchased something else.  In Abraham's case, he was "deemed" to be righteous because of his great faith.  Against all hope, reason and commonsense Abraham believed God would give him a son and heir, even though in the worldly sense it was pure fantasy.  And St Paul makes an interesting leap in verses 24 and 25.  We too are deemed righteous if we believe in Jesus' death and resurrection.



Taking It Personally.

·        Ponder the promises made to Abraham in chapters 12-18.  Remind yourself of the age and physical health of Abraham and Sarah.  Ponder the absurdity of the promises as they must have sounded at the time.  Now finish the sentence that begins, "And yet..."

·        Does the resurrection seem any more or less probable to you than the birth of a child to a couple in their dotage?

·        Can you recall an occasion in your own life when something happened against all the odds?  Did you detect the hand of God in that outcome at the time?  Do you now?

Mark.  Immediately after Peter has identified Jesus as the Christ he gets into an argument with him.  Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, but Peter does not seem to hear the second half of that.  He hears only that Jesus will be abused by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be executed.  Peter "rebukes" Jesus: this is the same term used to address an evil spirit during exorcism.  The presumption of Peter here is astounding!  In turn, Jesus "exorcises" Peter.  Peter's problem is that he is thinking in worldly terms: even though he claims to have recognised Jesus to be the Messiah, he still sees Jesus in purely human terms.  So Jesus spells out the consequences of following him: followers must die to self and rise to new life in him.  Then comes the Transfiguration.  Again, notice how matter-of-fact the account of this extraordinary mystical encounter is.  It's a nice touch that Peter still cannot keep his mouth shut, even though he has no idea what to say!  He feels he ought to do something useful, but again he is operating in the wrong "mode".

Taking It Personally.

·        Jesus confronts his own mortality; spells out the cost to us of following him; and then three disciples have an out-of-this-world experience of the mystery we call God.  Which of these three episodes do you find the most scary?

·        Take time to contemplate your own death.  What is your predominant feeling about it?  What part does your faith play in this contemplation?

·        Have you had an encounter with the mysterious that has been beyond words – that you could not explain, describe or record in words?

·        The story of the Transfiguration is a classic one for praying with the imagination.  Spend some time putting yourself in the story, perhaps alongside the three apostles.  Go slowly through the story from the inside, noting your feelings as you go.

·        When you've finished spend time in prayers of praise and thanksgiving.



Friday, 2 March 2012