Here is Bishop Stephen's Lent 4 reflection, this week reflecting on Mark 8.14 to 9.8.
Lent Reflection 4
This week I am reflecting on Mark 8.14 to 9.8.
Before lockdown I had guests to stay overnight who were looking forward to a hearty and healthy breakfast. I had the full English ingredients ready; but when I went to the bread bin, I discovered that not only had I not bought enough bread but the bread I had was mouldy. I could go to the shop but the disciples, on the boat with Jesus, could not when we look at 8.14-21. I get quite distressed if I don’t provide enough, indeed a surplus. The disciples were very fed up. But Jesus takes their fractiousness to teach them a tough lesson. In Jesus’s day yeast was seen as a metaphor for insidious evil. He was upbraiding the disciples in their ignorance. He was likening the disciples to the Pharisees and Herodians in the service of evil against the Kingdom. They represented the utter blindness and deafness of humanity to the call of God. Only a divine miracle bestows faith. It is no surprise, therefore, that the continuing and wilful blindness of the disciples about the two miraculous feedings is contrasted with the miracle in verses 22-26 of the healing of the blind man. The man at first did not see clearly. People looked like trees walking. Gradually, he saw clearly. Up to now Jesus had been teaching crowds who were drawn by his healing miracles. Now he has chosen mostly to address his disciples who kept putting themselves on the edge or even outside the Kingdom. The reformation theologians made much of the distinction between the visible and invisible church and who might belong but not be saved. The starkest modern example of the insider/outsider issue might be abuse committed by clergy or church officers. There is huge cognitive and emotional dissonance between people’s calling and authority and their destructive behaviour and the abuse of people, power and of God’s will that all will flourish. We can see this dissonance when we observe bullying in our church community. Or it could be fighting over a loaf of bread for one breakfast when our poorer neighbour never can afford any breakfast at all. All of us as disciples can be blind ourselves to the Providence of God. We only ever have 20:20 vision in hindsight.
How much do you rely on satellite navigation for every car journey or cycle ride? When did you last look at a proper map? I was on the A14 recently and my satnav had not upgraded. There were also diversions for floods. After a while the satnav just gave up altogether and I got lost. One thing that Mark appears sometimes to be muddled about is geography. Why, in 8.27, did Jesus take his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, to the far north of the Holy Land and the edge of the Galillean hills when he wanted to go to Jerusalem? In the gospels, geography is never just about topography and a physical destination. There is often a spiritual and theological destination or hinge point. Caesarea Philippi was on the borderland between the Holy Land and Gentile territory. A temple had been built there to the emperor as a god, a blasphemy to the Jews. In Luke’s gospel Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem in Chapter 9, verse 51, but did not arrive there until Chapter 19. Jesus was declared the Messiah in the place of a false god; and on the way to Jerusalem he has much still to teach the disciples. This is the journey of faith for the disciples to learn who Jesus really is as he faces his destiny in the holy city. Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah was founded entirely in Jewish expectations of what the Messiah would be like, coming in power not as God Himself but as a Davidic king who would restore Israel and remove all the enemies of the Jews. Jesus did not deny his messianic role, but yet again he sternly ordered them to say nothing. Why this secrecy? Volumes have been written about the Messianic Secret and I don’t intend to re-hash it all here. Suffice it to say, the only entities who have come close to recognising Jesus’s true identity are the demons and now the disciples, both inadequately. He does not want to be revealed neither by evil nor by his working of miracles. People will only see him as he truly is when he is raised up on the cross. That is the direction of all of his teaching. It is only this that will set people free to see him clearly as their Lord.
Jesus’s only title for himself was the Son of Man. I think that Jesus was identifying himself with the prophet Ezekiel who is referred to as Son of Man by God several times during his prophecy. This was the favoured one among the people who would also suffer before being exalted. In the Jewish and early Christian mind this role was closely associated with the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Jesus revealed himself to his disciples for the first time and they could not take it in. Peter rebuked Jesus not because he was a bad man. He was obviously seen as an important and great figure in the mind of the Early Church. No, it is just that he still saw this revelation in a limited human way. Of course, the Messiah of his imagination could not suffer and, anyway, he could not allow this to happen to his dearest friend and master. Peter thought he was being kind. The disciples did not want any truck with crucifixion and so did not hear the promise of resurrection. I was always surprised when I was a parish priest by the number of my parishioners who could not cope with Good Friday because it was too sad. They would attend services every day from Palm Sunday to Mandy Thursday and then re-appear on Easter Day. Holy Week for the second year running will be strange in a few weeks’ time. I pray that we can all drench ourselves in the Passion of Jesus, bringing all our own needs and griefs to the foot of the cross; but also to find our deepest hope and longing and thanksgiving to Jesus. I once went to an excellent school performance of Jesus Christ, Superstar. As you may know, it ends with the death of Jesus. As the curtain came down, the woman next to me leant across and said, “You’d have thought they would have come up with a happy ending”. Well, there you go….
Jesus was fierce with Peter, but not to drive him away. Peter and the other disciples were to get behind him to walk in his slipstream on the way to Jerusalem. Peter was blind in his inner sight but he was still loved and God had much in store for him as the rock upon which God’s church was to be built. One of the delights of the first lockdown was to discover the movie called The Two Popes, an imaginary but very moving encounter between Pope Benedict and the future Pope Francis. The story reminded me that as I draw so much from the wisdom of Pope Francis, he went through terrible struggles and made serious mistakes in Argentina. It is what he learned from his mistakes that has shaped him, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to be the rock he now is.
Having made his own future clear in 8.31, Jesus turned to the consequences of this statement for his followers and all disciples to come. Summoning the crowds means that all future readers of the gospel and all believers are drawn in. The challenge and the promise are for all. The first call in verse 34a was for listeners to deny themselves. It does not mean that we cannot have aspirations of our own, but that they must be subordinated to the demands of the gospel in any situation. I wanted to come back from my curacy in Cambridge to be a college chaplain. I had the job in the bag. Instead, I was sent by the bishop to the centre of Sunderland. The bishop consulted the Holy Trinity before I could! We can all think of ways in which we have faced such challenges, some of them much starker than I have ever faced. The second injunction in verse 34b was to take up their cross. This was a chilling demand in an age where crucifixion was a commonplace at the edge of town, where you could not avoid seeing the deliberate depth and duration of suffering. Of course, disciples in our day are mostly not going to face their physical death, but Christians are being killed every day just because of their faith. Let’s pray that the Pope’s joint statement with the Ayatollah in Iraq will bring some tangible relief to Iraqi Christians in the cradle lands of our faith.
Jesus moved on to talk about how lives can be lost and saved. This is at the heart of all Christian discipleship and ministry. The use of the word ‘life’ here is double-edged. The Greek word used in this passage is ‘psyche’ which can mean the passage of your physical life through to death; but it can also mean your human core that might be taken up into eternal life. Therefore, those who don’t deny themselves for the gospel because they want to hold onto the status quo or security in material things will die a final death whereas those who give themselves away, if necessary to the point of martyrdom, will receive eternal life. In the face of judgement, we have no defence except Christ himself. When I think of the times that I have not spoken out as I should have in defending the gospel or in solidarity with the poor, I am ashamed. I pray that Jesus will not be ashamed of me. Jesus developed his description of himself as the Son of Man from not only the one who will suffer, but also the one who will come as our future judge. His divine nature might still be hidden; but he will come as heavenly judge who will be revealed in all his glory at the final reckoning. At that point we pray that he will vouch for us in the heavenly court as worthy to share the eternal life to which he has been raised.
People often tell me that they do not believe in God, to which I sometimes reply that it is good then that God believes in them because otherwise there would be no universe at all. This applies to us, too. Peter and the other disciples were ignorant and blind; but Jesus showed them such forbearance. He still drew them to himself. They heard his words about future glory and six days later Jesus took his closest disciples, Peter, James and John up a mountain. Scholars disagree whether it was Mount Hermon near Caesarea Philippi or Mount Tabor. Christian tradition goes for Tabor. I have to say that I have been on different pilgrimages where the leader has chosen differently. The Church of the Transfiguration is on Mount Tabor and is exquisitely beautiful and evocative. You can only get there by a fairly perilously-driven taxi, so it is heart-stopping in many ways; but what really matters is that Jesus was revealed in all his glory to his friends. Some scholars say that this is a displaced Easter appearance of the Risen Christ. This misses the point. There are three occasions in Mark where Jesus is referred to as the Son of God and they reflect his obedient full commitment to life among and for us. He joined a crowd of penitent sinners at the Jordan and he heard his Father’s voice. He declared to the disciples in 8.31 that he was going to suffer and die, and on the mountain God the Father spoke again. The third announcement was from the centurion at the cross after he had died for our sins. This metamorphosis is one which revealed the inner identity of Jesus outwardly. The first time that Jesus was called Son of God, only Jesus and the reader hear it. Now the disciples observed the cloud and heard the voice of God. Elijah and Moses not only had mountain top experiences of God’s presence, it was after considerable conflict and suffering. They were also expected to be present at the fulfilment of the Kingdom. Peter’s outburst is indicative of our desire for profound spiritual communion with God in Jesus. Our heart is with his in that longing. But he still would not accept that the way of salvation is costly. The disciples were shown the glory so that they might know that only the sacrifice of the Son of God himself would suffice for us to be free from the finality of sin and death. The desire to build tents is a desire to bottle glory. We cannot limit God in any way. Jesus did not divest himself in any way of his divine nature to be fully human.
The Transfiguration is a glorious mystery. It teaches us not about God’s remoteness but God’s closeness. When we receive the sacraments we experience the thin separation between the divine and the human. We may experience that ‘thinness’ as much on the plain as on the mountain. Whatever our context, we are never far from our Lord and God.
Have a good week with Him.