Monday 5 February 2024

Losing one's 'self' to find oneself

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

Mark 8.27-9.8

I’ve always loved optical illusions,
            and particularly the kind where you can see two different images,
            depending on which part of the picture you’re focussing on.
Do you know this one, which originated in the nineteenth century,
            but became famous after it was published in the satirical magazine Puck,
            with the title, ‘My Wife and My Mother in Law’?
Depending on how you look at it,
            you will either see a beautiful woman looking away from you,
            or an old woman looking towards you.
I did contemplate scrapping the sermon altogether,
            and for us to just have fun looking at optical illusions together on the big screens,
            but then I figured you can waste plenty of time
                        on that at home without my assistance.
But I wanted to make the point
            that sometimes we need to learn to see things differently.
[Stop displaying the slide now]
Not everything is as it seems,
            and not everything can only be seen one way.
Which is kind of the theme of our readings this morning,
            from the gospel of Mark.
Today is the day in the Christian calendar known as Transfiguration Sunday,
            which is usually celebrated on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
And so, as we are continuing working our way through the gospel of Mark,
            we conveniently find ourselves at the story of the Transfiguration.
                        (it’s almost as if someone planned it!)
And what I want to suggest this morning
            is that the Transfiguration story is an invitation to see things differently,
            to learn to see things in a new way.
I’ll come back to that in a bit,
            but first I’d like us to consider the story that Mark gives us
                        just before the bright lights
                        and mystical mythical characters on the mountain:
            the confession of Jesus by Peter at Caeserea Philippi.
This story, which we had in our first reading
            touches on some of the key philosophical issues
            of what it means to be human.
Here we encounter
            the problem of suffering,
                        the mysteries of life, death, and resurrection,
            the nature of evil,
                        and the question of ultimate authority.
So, buckle up, friends! We’re going deep…
I’ve mentioned before that in Mark’s gospel,
            none of the geography happens by accident.
Mark often gives his readers little clues about where things are happening,
            and it’s always worth paying attention to them.
In fact, his whole gospel has a careful geographical structure:
            starting in the North in the region of Galilee,
            and then moving South to Jerusalem in the second half of the gospel.
Here, in our story for today, at the half-way point in the gospel,
            the narrative is about to start heading south.
But not quite yet – because today we’re in the town of Caesarea Philippi,
            an ancient Roman city located at the southwestern base of Mount Hermon,
            which is about as far North as the gospel gets.
Caesarea Philippi was adjacent to a spring, with a grotto,
            and some shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan.
The city that existed at the time of Jesus had been built by Herod the Great,
            just a few decades before
            and he had erected at large white temple ther;
but then it had been further developed by Herod’s son Philip,
            who named it Caesarea in honour of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus,
            and Philippi, in honour of himself - a typical Herodian touch.
So its name – Caesarea Philippi – was highly symbolic:
            speaking of Roman power,
                        of Jewish religious authority,
            of the pagan mystery religions,
                        and of the might of the Jewish Herodian dynasty.
It is therefore no accident that Mark takes us to Caesarea Philippi
            to address the question
            that has been haunting the gospel up until this point.
And this question is very simple: Who is Jesus?
Of course, Mark has already given away his answer to this question,
            in the very first verse of the gospel;
so as his readers we already know
            that he thinks Jesus is ‘the Christ, the son of God’ (1.1),
and we’ve had this confirmed to us
            as we listened in to the voice of God declaring to Jesus at his Baptism
            that ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (1.11)
But for the characters in the story Mark is telling,
            the question of who Jesus is, has been much more mysterious.
They’ve witnessed him casting out spirits of uncleanness,
            they’ve seen him healing people
                        and restoring them to right relationships with others and with God,
            and they’ve heard a bit, but not a lot, of his teaching.
But have they worked out who he is?
            This is what Jesus asks Peter at Caesarea Philippi.
And the initial response isn’t all that promising,
            as Peter reports back that some people are saying
                        Jesus is the ancient prophet Elijah returned to the earth,
            while others are thinking that he is John the Baptist,
                        come back from the grave.
And this raises an interesting question for us, today,
            in terms of the variety of views and opinions
            that exist about Jesus in our world.
I wouldn’t mind betting if we went out onto Shaftesbury Avenue,
            and asked those walking past the question,
                        ‘Who do you think Jesus is?’
            we’d get some pretty interesting answers…
The response of those around him in the first century, interestingly,
            pretty much mirrors the typical responses
            you are likely to get to this question today.
Some would say he’s a religious leader:
            a spiritual reformer and a caller-to-repentance,
                        like John the Baptist had been.
While others would say he’s a prophetic figure:
            offering a social and political critique,
                        in the style of a modern-day Elijah.
It may be that there are some of us here this morning,
            who would put Jesus into these kinds of categories.
But Jesus pushes further, and asks Peter who he thinks that Jesus is;
            and here we get to the heart of the matter,
                        as Peter has one of is rare moments of lucidity,
            as he gives the answer that the gospel has been building up to:
                        he says that he thinks Jesus is the Messiah.
And honestly, it would be hard to imagine a more inflammatory thing to say
            in the city of Caesarea Philippi.
The word ‘Messiah’ is a Hebrew word meaning ‘anointed one’,
            and it translates into Greek as ‘Christ’.
But in the Jewish tradition,
            the only people who were anointed, the only Messiahs allowed
            were the High Priest, and the King himself.
So to declare Jesus as the Messiah was a direct challenge
            to the very heart of the Jewish power system,
it was striking at the root of both religious and royal power,
            not to mention the implications for relations with the Romans
                        of proclaiming someone King
                        in a town literally named after the Roman god-emperor.
This isn’t so much a revelation as it is a revolution,
            and the possibility of it all getting very bloody, very quickly,
            is right there in the text.
We don’t know whether impetuous Peter,
            quick with his sword and his words,
            if not always with his brain,
was gearing up for an armed march on Jerusalem
            to re-take the city from the Romans.
But certainly, if he was,
            it would explain what happened next…
Because firstly Jesus told Peter and the others not to say anything to anyone:
            there was to be no rabble rousing at Caesarea Philippi.
And then he started to teach them
            about how the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,
                        and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
            and be killed, and after three days rise again.
                        … to quote from verse 31.
And you can understand why Peter is confused.
He needs to learn the lesson
            that sometimes we need to see things differently.
Not everything is as it seems,
            and not everything can only be seen one way.
Because if Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one,
            if he is the personification of royal power,
            and the embodiment of religious power,
then he doesn’t look like the kind of king or priest
            that Peter or anyone else was hoping for.
If this is Jesus making his great bid to become the heir of David,
            the king who was also a priest,
then something is going wrong.
If this is Jesus challenging the power of Caesar, Rome, and the Herodian dynasty,
            then it’s not going to work if he goes to his death.
But sometimes we need to see things differently:
            because not everything is always as it seems.
Closer attention to what Jesus is saying
            reveals Mark here is making a deliberate point:
In his choice of words he is consciously aligning Jesus
            with the trajectory of the Suffering Servant from the book of Isaiah,
            who faced suffering and death for the sins of the world.
At the time the book of Isaiah was written,
            the Suffering Servant was a personification of the nation of Israel,
                        suffering the indignity of the exile
                        at the hands of sinful nations who rejected God, and God’s people.
And Jesus is indicating
            that just as the suffering servant Israel had to face pain,
            so the same will be true of him.
But why does Jesus do this?
            And why does he say
            that the Son of Man ‘MUST’ undergo great suffering…?
It’s a big question:
            Why does Jesus ‘HAVE’ to die?
Some Christians will say that Jesus had to suffer and die,
            because it was the only way
                        that the wrath of God against human sin could be satisfied,
            and that if the wages of sin is death,
                        then divine righteousness demands the sacrifice of an innocent victim
                        in place of the those sinners whom God longs to spare.
This kind of thinking is known as substitutionary atonement theory,
            and thankfully it isn’t the only game in town.
Sometimes we need to learn to see things differently.
            Not everything is as it seems,
            and not everything can only be seen one way.
I’d like to suggest an alternative,
            which is that Jesus had to suffer and die,
                        not because God is wrathful,
                        but because humans are sinful.
It’s an important distinction:
            If Jesus is God made flesh, drawing near to humans in love,
            then sin is human resistance to that work of grace.
If Jesus is inaugurating God’s new reign of love,
            then sin is human resistance to that in-breaking kingdom.
To put it another way:
            Sin is the human will which fights to the death
                        to stop God being God,
            because deep down we want God to be more like us,
                        and less like God.
So Jesus says that he must suffer and die,
            not to keep sinners from the hands of an angry God, [1]
but because he knows that he must remain true to his mission
            of bringing God’s offensively inclusive love to all,
and that humans, at least some of them,
            will resist him to the bitter end.
And because people still caught in sin
            will always fight to stop God drawing near to them,
Jesus says that the Son of Man must suffer,
            must be rejected by those who should know better,
                        must die, and must rise again.
If the Suffering Servant Israel in the book of Isaiah
            faced exile and destruction
                        at the hands of those who rejected God and God’s people,
            in order to bring salvation to the nations who denied God’s love;
then the same is true of Jesus,
            who embodies the hope of God’s people in all times and places
and who must therefore suffer and die
            in order to unmask the violence of human sinfulness once-and-for-all.
The death of the Messiah at the hands of sinners
            will be a cataclysmic event from which there is no going back.
There will be no undoing this moment of scapegoating,
            where the one dies because of the sins of the many.
It’s no wonder Peter is confused and upset,
            but it’s also not the end of the story.
And the good news here, which Jesus speaks but Peter misses,
            is that the death of the Messiah must be followed by resurrection.
One way of thinking about resurrection which I find helpful,
            is that it is God’s ‘no’ to human rejection,
and that it speaks of the deep truth,
            that God’s ultimate will
            is for life, and not death, to get the final word.
Every time humans draw back from God,
            and resist God’s attempt to draw near to them,
every time we make choices
            that bring death and pain and suffering to humanity,
God answers back with a divine ‘no’,
            persistently calling life back into being
            from the darkness of the tombs we create.
This is why the son of man must suffer and die,
            because without confronting the awful consequences of human sin,
            the path to life remains stubbornly blocked.
So what is this resurrection to life,
            that is so wonderful
            that it is worth suffering and death to find it?
And again – there are those Christians who will say
            that the life that Jesus brings is a life beyond death:
                        the afterlife, heaven,
                        eternity on a cloud with a harp,
            however you like to think of it.
I’m not going to try and deconstruct the classical theology of heaven this morning,
            that’s a sermon for another day,
but I do wonder if there is a shift of perspective here,
            that might also help us understand what Jesus is getting at.
Sometimes, as I’ve said, we need to learn to see things differently,
            and not everything can only be seen one way.
The Greek word that’s used here for ‘life’
            isn’t zōē, which would typically describe the physical life
                        characterised by hearts pumping and lungs expanding.
            Rather it is psuchē, which describes the life spiritual
                        the life of the soul, the heart, and the mind.
So when Jesus says that those who want to save their life will lose it,
            and that those who lose their life for his sake will save it,
he is talking about the life spiritual - not the life physical,
            the loss and gain in view here is the essence, the vitality of a person,
            not their biological existence.
So the finding of true, eternal, spiritual life
            involves losing of one’s ‘self’
            in something greater than oneself.
Those who lose their life, their ‘self’ in Jesus,
            and in the gospel he proclaims,
find this sacrifice restores to them their true self,
            their true quality of life.
Just as Jesus must suffer and die, and lose his life,
            in order that the new life of resurrection may be unleashed;
so wherever new life in Jesus is found,
            wherever those who lose their ‘self’ and find it again in him:
this is where resurrection occurs.
The giving up of ones-self in order to find life,
            becomes the aligning of our life with that which is greater than we are,
            and this is the new life, the new vitality, that Christ provides.
And so we come to the moment of transfiguration,
            with Jesus, Peter, James and John
            making their pilgrimage up Mount Hermon from Caesarea Philippi.
Here we find ourselves sharing with them in the ultimate ‘mountain top experience’,
            the moment of supreme revelation in the gospel,
where the key group of disciples hear the answer
            to the question of who Jesus is;
and they hear it from none other than the voice of God!
This is where Mark’s assertion in the first verse of the gospel,
            and Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi,
            get their divine authorisation.
Jesus is the Son of God.
            In Jesus, all the fullness of God is made known.
In Jesus, God draws near to sinful humans in an act of love,
            identifying with us in all our sinfulness
            in order to fan into flame the spark of true life
            that lies dormant in each human soul.
In Christ, God is drawing our souls to life,
            gifting us resurrection,
            and showing us a new way of seeing, and being, and doing.
The moment of transfiguration is God’s gift to each of us,
            showing that we can share in, and experience,
            the life-giving, life-affirming, life-renewing resurrection of Christ.
The question for us, as for the disciples on the mountain top,
            is whether we can accept and inhabit this new perspective.
Peter, of course, gets it wrong again…
            Having already denied what Jesus had said
                        about the need for the Messiah to be crucified;
            he next offered to build huts for Jesus
                        and the two Old Testament characters
                        who had mysteriously appeared with him on the mountain.
Just as an aside, it is sometimes suggested
            that Moses and Elijah appear at this point
            to demonstrate that Jesus is the fulfilment
                        of the law (personified by Moses),
                        and the prophets (personified by Elijah);
but it is more likely that they are here
            at the point where heaven opens to reveal the identity of Jesus
            because of their role in the Jewish apocalyptic tradition.
Both of them have slightly ambiguous death-traditions,
            and this meant that within Jewish apocalyptic texts
                        they often featured as kind-of tour guides to heaven,
                        showing people around in their visions of the heavenly realm.
Their appearance with Jesus at his transfiguration
            is an indication that this is an apocalyptic moment,
                        a moment of the unveiling of truth,
            when the boundary between God’s realm and the earthly realm is breached.
Such moments don’t last forever, of course,
            as you’ll know if you’ve ever had your own ‘mountaintop experience’
            of the overwhelming and inescapable presence of God.
None of us can stay on the mountaintop for ever,
            we have to get back to real life,
            to the daily grind of living out the truth that has been revealed to us.
So Peter is mistaken, but understandably so,
            in his desire to perpetuate the heavenly moment.
However, the revelation of Jesus’ identity doesn’t leave him,
            and his perspective is forever changed
            by his encounter with Jesus on the mountain.
The hot-headed impetuous Peter
            ends up as the rock on which the church is built. (Mt. 16.18)
And the same can be true for us,
            in our encounter with the transfigured Christ.
I wonder if this morning, on Transfiguration Sunday
            we can see, in a new way, what it means to believe
            that in Jesus, God is drawing near to us?
The change of perspective that this truth gives us
            can deeply affect the way we live in the world.
This is no cost-neutral paradigm shift,
            it’s going to bring transformation
            to anyone who opens their heart to it.
The Transfiguration story ends, with the voice from Heaven
            declaring that Jesus is God’s son,
            echoing the words spoken from Heaven at Jesus’ baptism.
But there is a significant difference too.
            At the Baptism, the declaration was for Jesus to hear,
                        and addresses him directly:
                        "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (1.11),
            whereas at the Transfiguration the declaration is for the disciples of Jesus,
                        it is for each of us to hear:
                        "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" (9.7).
The change of perspective here is not just about who Jesus is,
            but what we are to do about it.
It’s not enough to accept that Jesus is God’s son:
            that knowledge has to go somewhere…
Those who have seen the transfiguration,
            who have received the revelation of Jesus’ identity,
now need to learn to listen to the voice of Jesus.
There are so many voices clamouring for our attention,
            so many calls on our loyalty, allegiance, and resources.
And so, in the midst of it all, can we learn to listen to the voice of Jesus?
            Can we hear him challenging all those powers that might seek to own us?
Can we receive and respond to his invitation to a new quality of life,
            where we lose our selves in him
            in order to be found by the one who truly loves us?


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