A reflection offered at Hobart North Uniting Church, 15th Feb 2015
Mark 9:2-9 & Mark 1:40-45
You might expect that, given what I do for a living, I’d be involved in lots of conversations about Jesus! And perhaps I am. Recently I’ve been involved in two such conversations in particular, and they’ve given me quite a lot to think about.
The first was an email one in a group that I’ve been part of for several years: a large group connected with the Common Dreams Progressive Faith movement that has included important international theologians like John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Val Webb, and John Spong… and people like me! As you might imagine, I’ve not agreed with everything I read there, but have found it helpful to look on, and have even added something occasionally.
This particular conversation was triggered by a prayer written by someone in England in response to a terrorist attack. It began a robust back and forth conversation on the nature and language of prayer, on how we speak of and relate to GOD, and on how speak of Jesus in the context of all of this. The content of the discussion was interesting. But I became saddened by the way in which it quite quickly turned into a debate, and then an argument, about who was REALLY progressive in the conversation. The debate turned into a kind of ‘reverse-doctrine’ thing, based on who had the ‘best’ language, and then on who was or wasn’t still a Christian!
Now, I suspect it was a bunch of good people having a bad day, but I was disappointed enough in the conversation to delete the emails and leave it alone.
The second conversation was much smaller, immediate, and life-giving. It involved two wonderful people who were interested to chat about some reading that we’ve been doing. As is always the case, we came to our chat with some similar stories of faith and life behind us and some different ones too.
My partners in conversation suggested that I’d been learning and thinking about Jesus for a while now, and so might be able to help them with their questions and reflections. I hope that was the case. But our chat was a particular delight to me as well, because I experienced again the pleasure of ideas, experience and faith shared.
And the next day there was an email thanking me, which contained a statement that I have enjoyed and pondered over ever since: “Whatever conclusion I arrive at there is always the constant of the wonderful Jesus”
I could stop there… But you just KNOW I’m not going to!
Sitting with that comment and these two conversations is what prompted me to put these tow gospel readings together, rather than choosing one The lectionary has two sets of readings for this day in the Christian year, one involving the healing of the man with leprosy, and one for the Feast of the Transfiguration. Presumably the people who formed the lectionary see these as two distinct sets of readings and themes, and would probably be surprised to find anyone wanting to bring them together.
I agree with my friend that Jesus is a constant in my life and faith, and a wonderful figure at its heart. And for me one of the ‘most wonder-full’ elements of that is the complexity of his character. As we read the gospel stories we are presented with a life full of complex, rich and diverse experiences, with a man who understood his life with a depth of wisdom few of us ever reach. We are met by someone whose sense of God is so profound that it touches every aspect of his life, and yet he is willing to be challenged by the faith of others and learn from them.
Such complexity in the one that we choose to call “LORD” means, I think, that there needs to be some complexity in the way we understand him and attend to his gospel. This is the stuff of theology. Theology is sometimes talked about as best left to that rare breed of people called ‘theologians’, who sit in their studies and write books and give lectures based on every 14th word in 1 Thessalonians. Yes, such people do exist for sure, but the vast majority of theologians are like you and me, people who live and work within the ministry of local churches and communities of faith. You may have heard me say it before, but I’ll say it again anyway: “There’s no one here but us theologians”.
The academic ‘scholars’ are critically important. They (we, actually) are vitally important to help all of us grow in our sense of Jesus, and of the GOD we believe is revealed in and through him. But whether or not we regard ourselves as scholars in the strict academic sense, each of us is called to learn of Jesus. Even more importantly, we are called to learn and grow in the way of Jesus. Jesus the complex, authentic, and wonderful heart of our stories today.
It matters that we attend to Mark’s story of the transfiguration. It’s not simply there to emphasise Jesus’ authority, and that he’s up there with the ‘big boys’ of the people’s faith history. That’s part of it, certainly, but there’s way more to it than that.
The dazzling appearance, the clothes whiter than any earthly figure could make them… These symbols are here to spell out that, in some deep and unfathomable way, heaven and earth come together in this figure Jesus. This is a huge statement of faith for Mark, embracing both what he can see in an earthly sense in Jesus, and that which can only be experienced as holy mystery. The nature of this mystery doesn’t make sense for Mark by itself, and so he links it with Jesus’ teaching about his future treatment at the hands of the authorities. This, of course, makes no sense to his disciples. Nor is it meant to do so, within the narrative flow (big picture) of Mark’s gospel.
What it does do, is to begin to make clear that stories such as the transfiguration are not meant to be seen in isolation from the other stories in the gospel. Or to put it another way, the ‘glorification’ type stories, are not meant to be seen in isolation from the earthier stories. Each give complexity and meaning to the other.
So, to return to my choice of gospel stories for today, the transfiguration story is a vital part of the picture of Jesus. But if that’s the only picture of him we allow, then we are left with a very one dimensional Jesus.
For Mark, the holiness of the transfiguration story is enhanced by the story of Jesus touching the man with leprosy. And if I may be so presumptuous as to suggest why Jesus is critical of the religious leaders, I think this is part of it: that they fail to recognise that holiness is about engagement with ordinary life and people, rather than standing aloof from them.
The story of Jesus and the man with leprosy needs the story of the transfiguration. It says that the one with the gift of healing was a quite extraordinary person, in all kinds of ways. And the transfiguration needs the healing story. It says that the one in whom GOD was seen in an extraordinary way, understood how that presence was to be lived out.
In crossing the boundaries of holiness and taboo, I see GOD at work in him. Sometimes I am able to do the same. Sometimes his example shames me. And sometimes I hear a word of grace in it, calling me to try again next time!
For me, this week, this is the gift of the ‘constant and wonderful’ Jesus.
Constant in the way of love, and the insistence that this is the way of GOD,
and “wonder-full”, in touching lepers, and touching the heavens!
For this gift, I give thanks.