Monthly Archives: March 2014

Transfigured Presence

Mark’s Gospel chapter 9 verses 2-13

Continuing our excavation of Mark’s Gospel in search of that “intensely personal, hopeful and human voice” of Jesus (see my last blog entry), we come to chapter 9 verses 1 – 8: the story known as the Transfiguration of Jesus. Powerful spiritual experiences are often scary which is why we prefer to tame them, domesticate them, if we can. According to Mark’s account, Peter wants to deal with his disorientation and fear by trying to fit what’s happening into a familiar Jewish religious celebration of his day: the Festival of Booths.

“Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” he says. Mark has the insight to record, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” The voice from the cloud says, in effect, stop prattling on and listen. We might say, suspend judgement about this experience; just stay with it and with the scary feelings it evokes in you; don’t rush to interpret it; certainly do not rationalize it to try and make it safe.

Unfortunately this is exactly what the early church started to do as we can see from the next section of the gospel. Here, in verses 9 – 13 we have Mark, writing for and from within one of those earliest Christian communities, trying to fit the Jesus experience into the religious thinking of that time. The result is a passage that is incomprehensible to modern readers unless they are biblical scholars. Do these verses about Elijah add anything to our understanding or are they another, different, form of prattling on? Well ‘prattling’ is a bit harsh but I suggest these verses are a good example of the way in which the conversations going on in the first Christian communities could drown out that elusive voice of Jesus. The miracle is that, if we listen carefully, if we tune out verses like these, we can still hear that voice, or at least echoes of it.

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher/poet, in his 1923 classic ‘I And Thou’, reminds us that our temptation, especially during profound religious experience, is:

“to possess God; [we] desire a continuity in space and time of possession of God. [We] are not content with the inexpressible confirmation of meaning, but want to see this confirmation stretched out as something that can be continually taken up and handled….”

“To possess God”. We do like to make sense of things and that nearly always involves some form of possession. Reflecting on our experience, religious or otherwise, making sense of things, is a valuable human gift without which we could hardly survive. The New Testament writers’ reflection on their experience of Jesus preserved for us something of his message. But in doing so they were in danger of obscuring its innermost truth: Now is the only moment we have for encounter with transfiguring Presence. We cannot package it up and take it with us into the future. It can only be renewed in each succeeding Now as if we had never experienced it before.

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The still small voice

St Mark’s gospel chapter 9

“Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219) 

But sometimes those conversations become so loud that the voice of Jesus is drowned out. Biblical scholars can interpret the conversations for us but when they have done their work we are left with the challenge: how much of it is relevant for me here in the 21st century? What resonates with my experience now? How can I respond from the heart?’ In 1963 a couple of Jews turned Christians published a book with the startling title, ‘God Is No More’. (A phrase, by the way, from a William Blake poem). Introducing it they wrote:

“At such a time, when the centre of life has been evacuated for its suburbs and the father’s furniture moved into the spare room, we become free – for better, for worse – for a new beginning…..we could once again listen attentively and without prejudice to the words of and about the man Jesus of Nazareth. We are no longer tempted to fit those words into a system – there are no systems left, except in the spare room. We need not try to fit them into the religious thought forms of our age – there is little religion left except in the suburbs. Today we could be met by the simple, ‘naked’, ‘untheologised’ words of Jesus, and if we are lucky they will disturb, frighten, shock and puzzle us – as life itself…..Now the words concerning Jesus consist of words about him and of words alleged to have been spoken by him. It is not easy to draw the line between these two kinds of words. ….But I believe that in most instances the imaginative ear can still pick out the sound of an intensely personal, hopeful and human voice.” (Werner & Lotte Pelz, ‘God Is No More’ page 12/13)

“…an intensely personal, hopeful and human voice” the Pelz’s wrote. It’s the consistent message of this blog that to discover and hear echoes of that voice is to receive a message which resonates with the spiritual longing of increasingly large numbers of people. It’s a message with echoes in Buddhism, and some aspects of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and elsewhere.  Tomorrow I’ll listen for echoes of that voice in chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 8 verses 34 – 37

And so Mark brings us through chapters 7 and 8 (see the previous blog post) to this defining statement of the ministry of Jesus:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life …. will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed what can they give in return for their life?”

I hesitate to add to the torrent of words that has been unleashed over the centuries by this brief statement. It has caused so much pain – I would say unnecessary pain; so much misunderstanding, as indeed Mark has been warning us with the stories he has placed before it in chapters 7 and 8.

Let’s begin with a couple of preliminary points.

First, verses 35/35 use the word ‘life. I prefer the New English Bible here (in spite of its sexist language) because it uses ‘true self’ instead of ‘life’:

“Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake and for the Gospel, that man is safe. What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self?”

Secondly, I would guess that most 21st century Christians no longer think these verses are promoting the idea that it is good to suffer here on earth for the sake of a heavenly reward hereafter when the injustices of this life will be reversed;  surely a view repugnant to everyone except suicide bombers?

There are two ways of thinking about Jesus. You can see both of them in the New Testament. There’s the orthodox picture: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, second Person of the Trinity, Saviour of the world. The second, much less obvious, picture is: Jesus of Nazareth, teacher and prophet in the Wisdom tradition of Judaism. I suspect it is the first picture that so many 21st century people reject or at least find difficult to swallow. It is the second picture which would appeal to those who seek their ‘true self’ and who often pay good money to learn how to meditate or be mindful or do yoga: all skills they ought to get for free if the church had not lost touch with Jesus the Wisdom teacher.

Jesus, the wisdom teacher, is offering us life if we deny self; not ‘true self’, but self. What’s the difference? Gerald May, in his book ‘Will and Spirit’ distinguishes between self and self-image. Self-image is, as another writer puts it, a “paste-up job”. For most of us the paste-job is all we know. If we are asked, who are you? after giving our name, we are likely to reply, ‘well I’m a …..’ and we go on to list perhaps the job we do, the skills we have, the roles we play in public. Some of us might be really honest and reveal something of our darker side: “I’m a recovering alcoholic/depressive person…..” and so on. Some bits of our self-image contain important information but none of it refers to our true self: who we truly are. And it’s difficult to answer the question, “Yes but who are you really?” Frank Lake, a Christian psychiatrist used to say, “I try not to get out of bed in the morning until I have reminded myself that I am a child of God.” The diarist Anais Nin began each day with the mantra, “I am nothing. I have nothing. I want nothing”. It was her way of clearing all the self-image clutter from her mind so that she could begin each day with a clean sheet. You might say that she began each day by denying herself, letting herself be lost in order that her true self might become a little clearer.

But why did Jesus use such strong language here? “Deny yourself and take up your cross”. If self-image is all we think we have, then losing it, letting it go, will feel scary. Nobody likes to say, ‘I’m a nobody’! It feels a bit like dying. That’s why we go for almost anything rather than letting it go: cosmetic surgery, shopping, alcohol (see my blog post for the 25th February, ‘Tradition, tradition’). If I let go of who I think I am then perhaps I really am a nobody. Jesus invites his followers to go through this scary process because he knows it is the only way to life, to our true self. This passage ends with the enigmatic words, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (chapter 9 verse 1). It’s realm we cannot see until we take the risk of letting go.