Tag Archives: Presence

Matthew’s Gospel

So far in this blog the focus has been Mark’s Gospel. Now it’s time to turn to Matthew. The author of this gospel had a copy of Mark and borrowed passages from it. Perhaps he had a more strongly Jewish background. Although he follows Mark’s general pattern, he expands it a lot, usually with Jewish Christian readers in mind. Some scholars suggest Matthew mirrored the Pentateuch (the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament) with his own five sections:

  1. The Sermon on the Mount. Chapters 5, 6 and 7
  2. Instructions for the twelve Apostles. Chapters 9 verse 35 to 10 verse 42.
  3. Parables. Chapter 13.
  4. Community regulations. Chapter 18.
  5. Condemnations and judgements. Chapters 23, 24 and 25.

There’s a wrap-up verse or two, the scholars suggest, at the end of each of these sections: Chapters 7 verses 28-29; 11 verse 1; 13 verse 53; 19 verse 1; and 26 verses 1-2.

So, focusing on Jesus as a Wisdom Teacher, the elusive Jesus of Nazareth (please see my very first blog post for this approach) we start with John the Baptist in chapter 3 who had an important influence on Jesus. John baptises Jesus and it’s clearly a profound experience for him (for Jesus, I mean). Following Mark here, Matthew goes straight on to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in chapter 4 verses 1 to 11. He expands Mark’s terse account (Mark chapter 1 verses 12 and 13) in a way which later Christians found helpful as they searched in the third and fourth centuries for clues about the spirituality of Jesus. These ‘desert fathers’ as they are called (though women were probably involved as well) had gone into the Egyptian desert to try and recover the essence of Christian spirituality. They spotted that Jesus dealt with temptation by using verses of scripture. Remember, no one was actually there in the desert with Jesus so he must have taught his followers this technique for coping with temptation.

You don’t believe in the devil? Neither do I but sometimes it feels as if what goes on in my mind is part of a deliberate policy to unsettle me! Perhaps Matthew did believe in the devil. It doesn’t matter. The point is that temptation is taken seriously here in chapter 4. “If you are the Son of God…..” The lure of the first two temptations is, ‘so you think you have a calling? think you’re someone special do you? Well then, surely you should have these special powers’. On holiday recently I found myself thinking, ‘what’s the point of all my meditating when it doesn’t make me special? All these people around me on this lovely sunny Greek island seem quite happy without all the spiritual stuff that I try to practice. Surely I ought to stand out from the crowd?’ But, what if I stop expecting anything special? What if I carry on with my daily spiritual routine without any expectation? What if I just try to be present, to live each moment as it comes, without foresight, without forethought? Hmm! Jesus had something to say about that kind of attitude in what we call the sermon on the mount, later in this Gospel. 

“All these I will give you……” This, the third temptation, is still surprisingly relevant to me, even in my ninth decade. I can still find myself regretting my lack of achievement, feeling I should have ‘made it’ in some way; or that I haven’t been recognized enough. This is the temptation to enter the kingdom of ego and pursue power, profit and reputation at the expense of truth. Of course younger people should exercise power, create profitable businesses, be successful politicians. Without all this human society can hardly function. The temptation however is to lose sight of the truth about who we are, to forget our essential vulnerability, to lose touch with the still, silent, immense Presence at the heart of the universe that therefore is at the heart of each one of us. More on these temptations in my next blog post in about a week’s time.

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Tell me!

Someone I love is murdered or disappears. I don’t know where she is buried. I am consumed by a deep need to know what happened, where the body is. Ian Brady, the ‘moors murderer’ adds to the pain of his victims’ relatives by refusing ever to tell where he buried the bodies. Relatives of the missing Malaysian airliner may never know where that doomed plane and its passengers now lie. Not knowing can be the source of continuing grief and pain.

John’s Gospel tells the story of Mary of Magdala (chapter 20). There she stands outside an empty tomb: the body of the man she loved, Jesus of Nazareth, is missing. “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him,” she cries. Then, to someone she supposes to be the gardener she makes a grief-stricken plea:

“Tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”

I published a post on April 20th about John Spong’s book, The Resurrection: Myth or Reality. He speculates that no one knew where the body of Jesus was buried. Executed criminals were tossed into a mass grave. The disciples had fled. They weren’t there to see it. Spong suggests that stories of an empty tomb were later inventions, trying to illuminate the life-changing experience the disciples called the Resurrection. Maybe there’s an echo of this reality in John’s story. Mary, wrapped in grief, desperately wants to know where the body is, so that she can give it a proper burial. TELL ME! I want to know! At least give me this crumb of certainty in my grief, then I’ll have some small ritual to do which might help.

But no one knows, and the garden is empty. Or is it? Does the gardener become the risen Christ only when we accept that we don’t know; only when we accept uncertainty? Standing here, not knowing, allowing that not-knowing simply to be the case for me; maybe then the place becomes vibrant with a Presence.

Of course it is good to know and to face the facts, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings in South Africa showed. I wish they would set up a similar process in Northern Ireland. But when no one knows, when there is no one able or willing to answer the question, ‘Tell me’, then accepting uncertainty is the only way forward. And think of the pain that can follow a refusal to accept uncertainty. Think of the pain caused by our zeal to promote certainty in the absence of facts. ‘Accept this dogma, this creed, because we KNOW and you don’t, or you have got it wrong’.

The Psalm doesn’t say, accept this set of beliefs or facts. It says, “Be still and know that I am God….”

Be still and know that I am…

Be still and know…

Be still…

Be.

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.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 3. Who am I?

‘Mark’ (whoever he was) is a skilful writer. He has a plan. The stories he gives us are meant to fit together. It often helps to read a whole chapter in one go. That way we can get his drift and begin to understand what he is telling us about Jesus.

Chapter 3 is about people who just don’t get what Jesus is about, even his family. At the end of the chapter, Mark gives us a strong hint about how to get it – how to really ‘see’ Jesus.

The chapter begins in a synagogue with people who don’t see. Or rather they only see what they want to see. They’ve made up their minds and are watching, waiting to pounce if Jesus puts a foot wrong, breaks the rules….

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent…..

Mark has just given us the story about new wine bursting old wineskins (see my previous blog post). Here’s the new wine of Presence and love overriding religious rules.  As Brother Roger of Taize said, “Nothing is really serious except the loss of love.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but ‘they’ can sometimes be the critical voices in my head which are watching to see if people are going break the rules. I mean, I’ve got standards haven’t I, and I think people ought to live up to my standards! The voice in my head can be lightening quick with criticism of others (and incidentally of myself when I fail to live up to my own standards). Like those watching Jesus in the synagogue, I can be afraid of the reckless, outrageous, healing  abundance of Compassionate Presence.

Jump for a moment to verse 21:

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him,  for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebub, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.’

The gossip is upsetting Jesus’ family. It’s serious: much more serious than not keeping the religious rules. So Mark follows this with a comment about the stark danger of cynicism, of a blindness so absolute that it is impossible to see compassion and love when it is staring you in the face.

….whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never receive forgiveness….

Then comes Mark’s punchline story.

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting round him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’ Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

Some time before Mark wrote his Gospel, Paul of Tarsus had written a letter to Christians in Galatia:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Our sexual orientation, the circumstances of our life (whether inherited or adopted), the roles we play – father, mother, business person, social reformer, etc. etc. – are all an important part of living but they are all secondary to the essence of who we are.  To follow the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth is to discover this profound truth about ourselves: we are human beings-in-communion, with God, and with the whole of creation. Discovering the will of God, as Jesus puts it, is not a question of, ‘Right, this is what I have to do next.’ It is the startling discovery that – to quote Irenaeus, an early Bishop – ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive.’