Saturday, August 27, 2005

Refugee Sunday

Story – we were slaves – not only do we understand God as the one who is faithful and who redeems, but we understand ourselves as those who are faithful because we are redeemed.

For the last couple of weeks we have been reading the beginning of the story of Moses – the story that represents ground zero of the self-understanding of the people who we call Israel.  In the sense the Bible uses the name, that means Jewish people, and it also means Christians as well - who see that we as a people begin when God first chooses a wandering people to make a covenant with.  Last week, in the story of Moses’ birth we read about God working through the bravery of women – of Hebrew midwives, a little girl and the daughter of a king.  The faithfulness and courage of people who didn’t matter much in the world they lived in.  This week God appears to Moses in the heart of a burning bush. 

But let’s start a few verses earlier and notice first what this story is all about: that Israel groans and God hears.  Because actually this isn’t primarily a story about Moses, it’s the defining story of God’s people - the story of God’s astounding faithfulness revealed in the liberation of God’s captive people – a pretty good story for Refugee Sunday when churches across Australia deliberately refocus on what God’s attitude is to the statistics of war and history – the 23 or so million people who today are displaced in our world because of wars and ethnic or religious persecution, people whose lives are on hold because they are living in displaced persons camps, people who don’t belong anywhere.  People who get labelled as illegal immigrants or queue-jumpers, people whose individual stories often get submerged in the sheer scale of the problem they represent for the powers-that-be.

Israel – remember the word itself means the one who wrestles with God – Israel is in Egypt because they are on the run from famine – you remember the story of Joseph, and how he is sold into slavery in Egypt but ends up as Pharaoh’s right hand man, then in a complicated sort of turn-around when the whole region is gripped in a dreadful famine Joseph arranges for his entire family to join him in Egypt where there is enough to eat.  Joseph is the original immigrant who makes good, you can just about hear the grumbling of unemployed Egyptians who complain these Hebrew immigrants are taking the best jobs – and the extended family are the very sort that get the worst treatment in today’s refugee policies, because they’re what in today’s jargon we call economic refugees, on the run not from bullets or torture cells but starvation.  The Hebrews are a refugee people, and eventually the Egyptian government decides there are less votes in being nice to them than there are in getting a bit of work out of them, so they’re put to slave labour.  Not only that, but as we heard last week, Pharaoh brings in a policy of doing away with all the Hebrew boy children to make sure the Hebrew problem won’t exist in another 20 or 30 years.

And then we get to this remarkable short preamble to the story of Moses’ leadership.  The people of Israel cry out to God in their distress, and God hears them, God remembers the promise made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; God sees the oppression of this refugee people and God has compassion on them.  The upshot is that they’re about to have to flee from their homes yet again, this time they are going to be escaping the genocidal policies of Pharaoh – but as we are going to see it is God himself who is in control – or as the Bible reading puts it, ‘I have come down to deliver them’ – and Moses is going to be the agent of God’s will.

‘Don’t you see?’, says this young woman in Perth, almost three thousand years later – ‘we were slaves and refugees, and now we are free’.  That’s the sort of God we have, that fundamentally is what God is like and the rest of the Bible, more or less, is spent on elaborating the same point, over and over again.  God isn’t interested in boundaries or borders; God isn’t interested in visas or politics – God is interested in and God is moved by the suffering of people who have no other recourse and no other option but to cry out to him and to demand his attention.  This is something we need to pick up on here – it’s not God setting the agenda at this point but the people of Israel themselves – firstly it’s the cries of the people that get God’s attention, and then God remembers, God acts.  There is a priority to human suffering and human need.  God sees the suffering of God’s people, and then God comes down to deliver them.  As Christians we recognise this as the story of Jesus, but the fact is that this is the pattern of God’s care for God’s people, over and over again.  God doesn’t just care from a distance, theoretically, but God’s care always takes concrete form, God’s care is always fleshed out in human action.

Yes, you might say, but these were the chosen people.  These were the ones God had made a promise to.  Of course God is going to look after them.  But here’s the point.  The promise God made to Abraham, and to Isaac and Jacob is the same promise God has been making, over and over, whenever God gets the chance.  Whenever anyone will listen.  It’s the same promise God extends to absolutely everyone, that God makes absolutely explicit, in the form of his Son.  God’s chosen people includes everyone Jesus came to give God’s message of love to – everyone who is made in God’s image.  Whether or not they are Jewish.  Whether or not they are Christian.  Whether or not they even know it.

The people God has compassion for are the people who need God’s compassion.  Simple as that. 

Then along comes Moses.  Now we don’t know much about Moses’ early life, but we do know he was lucky – being brought up in Pharaoh’s own household Moses is a good example of someone who even though he belongs to a despised minority manages to make the transition into the privileged world of the dominant culture.  Like the refugee who ends up as managing director of BHP.  Moses doesn’t seem to fancy himself as an activist, or as a rebel leader.  But he’s clearly a person who is prepared to stand up for the weak and the oppressed – already he’s got himself into trouble by killing an Egyptian who was beating up a Hebrew slave, and on the run from Pharaoh, out in the bush, Moses meets his future wife when he rescues her from a band of outlaw shepherds.  The burning bush that Moses sees out in the desert – now that of course would be a remarkable sight but you know I don’t think it’s that significant – in fact I think there are probably burning bushes all over the place, or whatever the equivalent is in the world we live in – I think God is always trying to get our attention and the thing about Moses is that he is attentive enough, he’s curious enough and he’s prepared to step outside his own comfort zone – so Moses turns aside for a look.

And Moses, quite reasonably it seems to me, objects to what God has in mind.  Partly it’s the same objections it seems everyone who is called by God always comes up with – why me?  I really haven’t got what you’re looking for, God.  Not much of a public speaker, you know.  And God does with this what God always does – not by promising that all of a sudden you’ll be a fantastic speaker and everyone will listen – but by saying, ‘I will be with you’.  That’s should be enough.  But actually these aren’t really the main objections – because Moses, who isn’t thick, knows that God is inviting him into a fairly high-risk enterprise.  ‘You want me to go to Pharaoh and tell him what?  And Moses wants to sort out a few things first, to get a few assurances – who are you anyway?  Who are you to tell me that being a Christian means I have to turn into a bleeding-heart do-gooder?  And God, who apparently can’t resist being enigmatic, says, ‘Who am I?  Who I’ve always been.  Same one I was when Abraham second-guessed me all the way to Canaan, when I didn’t require the sacrifice of Isaac, when I wrestled with Jacob until he found out who he really was’  God grounds both his demands and his promises – the present and the future – in the history of God’s compassion.  I’m the one you’ve always known, deep down, was with you.  I companion you, I’m with you through thick and thin – oh, and by the way, when you least expect it I’m going to call you to be more than you ever dreamed possible you could be.  My promises are going to come true through you and because of you.

Is all this reassuring, or is it just a bit disturbing?  If we’re honest, maybe both.  Here’s the reassuring bit – that God is for us, and God acts in solidarity with us, that the fundamental nature of God is to enter into our world and our reality in order to transform our lives.  And the disturbing bit is this – that the flesh and blood God needs to act in this world is ours.  In Jesus as in Moses, God comes down into the world in order to deliver God’s people – in other words in Jesus, as in Moses, God’s Word is incarnate, God’s promises take on human form.  As they do in you and in me, whenever we are prepared to turn aside to see the burning bushes in our own wilderness, for example at Baxter or at Port Hedland.  Whenever we are prepared to listen to the cries of God’s suffering people in detention centres and displaced persons’ camps – and hear God saying to us, ‘I just need you to slip in and have a word to Pharaoh’.


Saturday, August 20, 2005

Who do you say I am?

Now I think somewhere along the way, I’ve already let slip that I have a certain fondness for the animated cartoon show, ‘The Simpsons’.  The whole idea I guess is that Homer as the dad and Bart as the 10 year old son are so self-centred and lazy that neither of them will ever amount to much – the whole family so dysfunctional that it’s bound to fall apart – and yet every episode reveals how at some level the characters really care for one another – in spite of everything these flawed characters manage to affirm some good quality in one another – Homer regularly starts out acting selfishly but ends up remembering what’s really important to him –  Homer knows what’s right and he loves Marge and the kids; and in the end he always finds out that that’s enough - in fact, like Odysseus in the epic poem, Ulysses, written by the original Homer over 2500  years ago, it seems the whole idea of Homer Simpson is to show us how far you have to travel sometimes to find your way home.  I think part of the long fascination people have had for Homer Simpson is that he is a sort of ‘Everyman’ – Homer like Odysseus before him represents every one of us when we have to negotiate the path between what we fantasise about and what we know deep down is most important.

I am always reminded of Homer when I read in the Gospels about Peter, because it seems to me they’re very similar characters.  Peter of course is the one who’s forever opening his mouth to change feet – impetuous but not very brave, enthusiastic though it seems not very clever – and at the same time Peter is the disciple many of us feel we best relate to – like Homer Simpson, Peter maybe stands for all of us when we’re divided and uncertain, when we want to be disciples but aren’t so sure we’ve got what it takes.

Today’s Gospel episode is one that gets an interestingly different treatment, depending on which gospel you read.  For Mark, the earliest of the gospel writers, the issue is all about recognising who Jesus is, and he sees the disciples as a pretty thick bunch who systematically miss the point all the way to the cross – where they scatter in terror – so much do the disciples fail to get the point in Mark’s gospel that who Jesus really is almost seems to be a secret – except here where you can almost see the light bulb going on – you’re the messiah, the one we’ve been waiting for! – and straight away Jesus tells him not to tell anybody – like he’s saying OK – but do you really know what you’re saying?

Because almost straight away we realise that Peter hasn’t really worked it out at all – when he calls Jesus the Christ, this word means he thinks Jesus is the king that the people of Israel have been expecting for hundreds of years – and yes, that’s what Jesus is – but Peter doesn’t understand what it means for Jesus to be this sort of king, because in the very next verse when Jesus starts talking about how he is going to have to suffer and die, Peter tells him off for being defeatist.  Peter doesn’t know what sort of king finds victory in humiliation and death. 

But Matthew does something a bit different with the basic story that presumably he got from Mark.  Matthew has a better opinion of the disciples than Mark does – like maybe my opinion of Homer Simpson might be more generous than yours – and Matthew has already told the story of Jesus stilling the storm where the disciples all recognise him as the Son of God – so I think for Matthew the main emphasis in this story is not so much on recognising who Jesus is but on Jesus identifying who Peter is, not so much on the identity of Jesus but on the identity of the church.

So, where Mark has Peter saying to Jesus ‘you are the Christ!’ – in Matthew, Peter adds, ‘the Son of the living God’.  Now, that’s another title for Jesus that we have to be careful about, because it doesn’t mean quite the same thing here that it means later, when the early church started to work out how Jesus could be both fully human and divine – back then Son of God could also be a political title, in fact it was one of the titles that the Emperor Caesar Augustus used.  And there’s an interesting contrast going on here, because the place this conversation is happening is Caesarea Philippi, where Herod the Great had built a temple to Caesar Augustus.  But when Peter applies it to Jesus it means something a whole lot more – in Matthew’s gospel the disciples have already recognised Jesus as one who has an intimate relationship with God the Father - so when Peter claims here in Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Son of God – not only is he saying that for Jesus’ relationship with God is very different from the emperor’s – but it seems he also knows that disciples who identify with Jesus’ announcement of God’s coming kingdom are going to get some opposition from the status quo, from the religious authorities and from the Roman state.  Which makes Peter either very bold or very foolhardy.

Maybe both.  Because Jesus praises Peter quite extravagantly – this, he says, came to you straight from God – and he gives the disciple who used to be called Simon a new nickname – ‘Rocky’ – which in Greek is of course Peter.  My Bible commentary suggests what Jesus has in mind is a verse from Isaiah chapter 51 that refers to Abraham as the rock from which God’s people are carved out, in other words that Jesus is saying Peter is going to be like a new Abraham – a founding father for a new Israel.

But here’s the irony – because really Peter isn’t very solid at all – like Homer Simpson, Peter means well but goes all to pieces on a regular basis – it’s just two chapters ago that Peter is the first one to want to get out of the boat and walk across the water to Jesus – only to lose his nerve and end up needing to be rescued -  Jesus might just as well have said, ‘you’re a blockhead, but it’s blockheads like you that I’m going to build my church out of’.  Because it’s Jesus that’s going to build the church, not Peter, or me or you.  We’re just the raw materials, and I don’t know about you, but for me it’s a comforting notion that the very bottom brick is a bloke that’s so ordinary that the only thing he’s really got going for him is that he chooses Jesus, and Jesus chooses him. 

And what does Jesus tell Peter about the church that he is going to build out of these not-so-flash bricks?  Firstly, that it’s going to last.  A big claim back then, and even now after the church has lasted two thousand years it’s a claim that we need to hear for ourselves in our own generation.  Next time you hear someone confidently predicting the church is on the way out, remind them of this passage.  ‘The gates of hell’, says Jesus, aren’t going to overcome this church.  This church is not going to be overcome by the powers of evil, and it’s not going to vanish in the sands of time.  When Jesus puts the church in the same breath as the gates of hell, we can be pretty sure he means there’s going to be some opposition, there’s going to be some narrow scrapes, but the church which is going to be tossed around and battered a bit – the church which is going to have to live right in the middle of the clash between God’s kingdom and the self-serving interests of the political, religious and economic status quo – God’s church which is the visible part of God’s kingdom on earth is going to last, and it’s going to last because it is Jesus who builds it.  You and I just get to decide whether or not we want to be part of the brickwork.

And then Jesus makes Peter a very peculiar promise.  It’s always Peter in the cartoon strips isn’t it? who meets you at the gates of heaven and either lets you in or gives you the bad news that you haven’t got a booking.  Except that I think what Jesus is talking about here has got more to do with Peter’s role as the foundation of the church here on earth than as a gatekeeper in the hereafter.  Because when Jesus talks about binding and loosing he’s using a standard rabbi’s phrase for interpreting the Torah, the book of the law, and applying it with authority to guide the life of God’s people.  And that’s almost as surprising!  Jesus is giving Peter the job of being a teacher, of being responsible for how the church interprets and applies the scriptures, how the church remembers and applies Jesus’ own teachings.  A lot of commentators believe this bit may have been put in a bit later by Matthew, who some 50 years after the death of Jesus is very much concerned about the need for a bit of structure in the church.  But whether or not these words go all the way back to Jesus the point is that Jesus sends people like Peter, people like you and me, people with more enthusiasm than good judgement, with more idealism than follow-through, and he says to us; I choose you.  You didn’t arrive where you are today all by yourself; but if you recognise who I am then you’ve already been blessed by God more than you know.  You might not feel very solid; you might feel like you haven’t got much to contribute but you have a very important mission, and that is to be available.  To be attentive.  To be in love.  You’re the building block I need to build the church that – for the rest of time – is going to be my physical presence in the world.  I’m relying on you, but you don’t have to do it by yourself.  I’ll be with you.

And all we have to do is answer a singe question: ‘who do you say I am?’


Saturday, August 13, 2005

Mary, Mother of our Lord

Have you ever wished there was a bit more detail in the New Testament about the really important things – like what Jesus got up to as a boy – what his grandparents names were, how Joseph and Mary got together – all the human interest stuff?  If so, you might be interested in some of the gospels and letters that didn’t make it into the Bible.

Most of them are actually appallingly bad – for example the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that tells about the first time six-year-old Jesus gets into trouble with the scribes for working on the Sabbath – by making toy pigeons out of clay and then making them fly away – this fairly fanciful version of Jesus’ childhood has him regularly working quite advanced miracles like helping his father in the carpenter’s shop by miraculously stretching pieces of wood that had accidentally been cut too short, reattaching feet that had been cut off in industrial accidents – also there’s a slightly troubling episode of divine delinquency to do with mates who tease the young Messiah mysteriously dropping dead.

A slightly more coherent one is the 2nd century document, the Proto-Evangelium of James – again it tries to fill in the blanks about Jesus’ childhood but this one goes back a whole generation and tells us how Mary and Joseph get it together.  Even though it isn’t in the Bible, the Proto-Evangelium is the source for a lot of the anecdotal stuff, and the Church traditions – for example the one that says Mary’s mum’s name is Anna, who is barren and unhappy until one day she receives good news through an angel that she is going to conceive.  Like Hannah in the Old Testament, Anna is so pleased she decides to offer the baby to God by sending it to the temple to be brought up by the priests.  So Mary gets brought up in a sort of boarding school for Vestal Virgins where they are hand-fed by angels – to make themselves useful the girls set to work weaving tapestries for the temple – Mary’s own job being to weave the purple and scarlet yarns for the veil that hangs in the sanctuary – this veil is a sort of curtain that hangs in front of the Holiest of Holies where nobody ever goes except the high priest, who ventures in once a year to stand in front of the ark of the covenant and make peace between God and the people of Israel. 

Well, when the Vestal Virgins turn twelve the priests quite naturally decide they don’t fancy the idea of sharing the temple with a group of teenage girls, so they tell them all it’s time to go home and get married.  I imagine most of the girls are probably quite relieved at the prospect.  But not Mary, who says her mum always wanted her to be a temple virgin and that’s what she plans to stay.  The priests are equally certain they don’t want girls of marriageable age hanging around the temple, so they pack her off back to mum and dad’s place in Nazareth with her scarlet and purple wool, telling her she can keep weaving the temple veil in her spare time until Joseph can get around to marrying her.

But here things get a bit strange.  Back at home, Mary dutifully picks up the scarlet wool and starts spinning, but then she feels thirsty and goes out to draw a bucket of water from the well.  As she’s pulling up the bucket she hears a voice coming out of nowhere saying, ‘hello, favoured one!  You’re shining with God’s beauty!  Of all women, you are the most blessed!’.  You know, and I know, that this is Gabriel, making his entrance, but Mary doesn’t know that, and she can’t see anything, so she goes back – quite flustered - and decides to have a go with the purple wool.  This time, Gabriel decides to be visible, and he says to her, ‘Mary, you’ve got nothing to fear, you’ve made quite an impression on God, and you’re about to conceive the child of God’s Word.  Nothing is impossible with God!’  And after that, the story unfolds more or less as we know it in the Gospel of Luke.  Mary says, ‘Let it be with me just as you say’.

Setting this story around a visit to the well to fetch water is almost certainly meant to get us thinking about all the other chance meetings by wells in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament – like Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah who becomes his wife – Jesus himself at the well with the woman of Samaria which I think is the only time in the whole Bible that a chance meeting at a well doesn’t lead to a proposal of marriage – but always in the Bible we see that the well is the place of refreshment and the place for great turning points in the history of God’s people – Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us of Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman, that the refreshment he gives becomes a well of water springing up in the believer’s heart, and suggests that the image of the well itself represents the bubbling freshness of God that always lies just beneath the surface, ready to spring up again and again from the depths. [1]  Mary, who at this point stands for the whole history of God’s people, the centuries-long exchange of promise and faithfulness, becomes the first person in history who explicitly believes in the fulfilment of God’s promise through Jesus – Mary herself becomes the well from whose womb flows the river of life.

But there is another great symbol lurking in this story, as Archbishop Williams points out – a more challenging one.  Because what Mary has been occupied in weaving is that great symbol of holy fear, the veil that hangs in front of the Holy of Holies and the ark of the covenant, the curtain that stands for the unbridgeable gulf separating sinful humanity and God.  Yet as Mary works she is interrupted – God, it seems, has done what human beings can’t do, and has stepped through the veil from the heavenward side!  God parts the curtain of everything that keeps us isolated and alienated from God, the curtain of fear and guilt – and is only able to do so because this one human creature is sufficiently unafraid, sufficiently attentive - sufficiently in love - to let God in without reservation.  And what this means for you and me, is that that now, when we look at God, we don’t just see the unknowable, terrifying emptiness of infinity, but the vulnerability and helplessness of a baby on a young mother’s lap.

You might already have picked up the most poignant connection of all, in this image of the veil that Mary is weaving.  And it’s the echo of Good Friday, the echo of Jesus’ last cry as he hangs on the cross, and as the gospel writer tells us the veil that hangs in the temple is torn in two from top to bottom.  What it means is that what separates us from God has been ripped apart - in daring to claim his oneness in love with the Father, all the way to death and beyond, Jesus has made a way for us to follow, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it, through the curtain, through his own body.  As Rowan Williams writes, just as Mary is interrupted, spinning the curtain, so the whole history of the world is interrupted by the cry of Jesus from the cross – everything that we try to put between ourselves and God is torn apart by God’s own initiative and Mary’s wholehearted consent.

I wonder, what curtains do we put up ourselves?  Where do we waste energy, and where do we put up barriers in between ourselves and the life-giving water that God wants to give us?  Because, make no doubt about it, it’s a very human thing to do.  We resist what gives us life.  You see the big conflicts that tear our world apart, and you think, why can’t we trust one another?  Why is it that we are more energised by ideologies and national identity that only give us a partial answer to what it means to be human, than by the challenge of reconciliation and the recognition of common humanity?  And you see it in the lives of families torn apart by the half-forgotten memory of some disagreement, what should be a place of love and unconditional acceptance becomes an arena for competition and point-scoring.  I think it comes from the place of shame, from the deep-down sense of inadequacy that means we’d rather hang onto our hurts than risk rejection by reaching out to the person we are alienated from.  And I think it can be like that in our religious life too.  The encounter with God can be challenging, when you really think about it the weekly encounter with the God we meet in the Eucharist, and the daily encounter with God in the life of prayer and Christian action challenges us to dare more, and to love more, than we ever dreamed.  Ripping down the curtain means refusing to retreat into a religion of dull convention, it means refusing to settle for the religion of habit that mistakes the form for the substance of the encounter with the living Word of God.  Ripping down the curtain means saying, over and over, yes! when God asks us to agree to be transformed, to be changed in ways we can’t predict by God’s silence and by God’s humanity.  Ripping down the curtain means saying yes to the utterly astonishing proposition that God wants to take on flesh in our own lives, that we will finally see humanity – including our own humanity – as God intended it to be.


[1] This sermon is based on Rowan Williams’ book, Ponder these things: praying with icons of the Virgin’, (2002, Mulgrave, Vic., John Garratt Publishing).  See especially chapter four, ‘Weaving Scarlet and Purple – a legend of Mary’, pp. 57-70.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Yesterday, the 6th of August, is the traditional date for the feast of the Transfiguration, the almost dream-like episode that the gospel writers tell us about where Jesus appears to three of the disciples transformed from the inside out, shining with an unearthly light, or as some of the older translations put it, a ‘glistering light’ that overwhelms and confuses them – and then a cloud comes down on them suddenly and wraps around them and terrifies them as it would any mountain climber who suddenly can’t see a foot in front of them – and in the cloud they hear a voice that terrifies them even more.  The wonderful thing about Mark’s gospel is that he never goes out of his way to make the disciples look good, Mark’s gospel is good news indeed for disciples who are all too human, disciples who – deep down – know they don’t really know what’s going on.

Yesterday, the 6th of August, also marks the anniversary of the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima – and the cloud of nuclear anxiety that has hung over human history for the last 60 years.  Strangely, the Japanese word that translates the Greek term for transfiguration, also has the meaning of disfiguration.  The blinding light that transformed Jesus in front of his disciples’ eyes, since 1945, is forever associated with the light that briefly shone brighter than the sun over Hiroshima, and two days later over the city of Nagasaki.  The cloud that envelopes Peter, James and John on top of the mountain is forever to be associated with the immense mushroom cloud that grows over a city in the moments before it is obliterated.  The feast of the Transfiguration must forever be associated with its opposite, the feast of Disfiguration.  What are we, as Christians, to make of this?

We might wonder, for a start, at the paradox in both of these events.  A quick look at the Letters pages in the newspaper is enough to show the difficulty we still have in interpreting the events of August 1945.  Was the atomic bomb, quite simply, monstrous?  Or, was there a deeper morality in dropping the bomb that arguably shortened the war and saved lives?  The dreadful responsibility for helping to create such a diabolical weapon was maybe best expressed at the time by scientist Robert Oppenheimer who quoted from the sacred text of the Bhagavad-Gita, saying, ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’.  The blinding white light of the atomic explosion over Hiroshima at one and the same time represents the triumph and power of human intellect, the penetration of the secrets of matter itself – as well as humanity’s inability to resist the fascination of despair and self-destruction. 

But maybe it’s fitting that we are reminded on the anniversary of this dreadful event -  that right in the middle of the fearful memory of Hiroshima we see Jesus, journeying towards his own crucifixion and still suffering today in innocent victims everywhere - but radiating the transforming power of God.

Mark tells us all this happens just after Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to have to suffer and die, and he says, if you really want to follow me – if you really want to be my disciple you have to give up everything you value, everything you ever wanted, and follow me to the cross.  If you want to be my disciple, you have to suffer.

You wonder why it’s so hard to get people to come to church!  Even the disciples found this a bit much, let alone people like us who live in a society that makes a virtue out of pleasure, a society that teaches that pain is to be avoided at all costs, there’s always a pill or an operation to make it go away.  Peter even tells Jesus off for not thinking positively, but here’s the point – the God of Jesus, the God of Moses and the God of Elijah is not safe, does not promise us that we will be immunised from the hardships of life but does promise to be with us no matter what.

It’s easy to see the presence of God in the risen Jesus, on the other side of the cross – the Jesus who amazes us with his sudden appearances and disappearances – but what we are seeing here is a glimpse of the divinity of Jesus right in the middle of his conflicted humanity, right as he reveals to his disciples that he is going to have to suffer and die.  It’s harder for us to imagine God hanging on the cross, in the middle of defeat and humiliation, but that is what Mark is reminding us of with this cameo of Jesus’ divinity on the road to the cross.  The appearance of Moses and Elijah – the two great figures who Jews believed lived in the presence of God - talking with Jesus – should have helped the disciples understand and believe what Jesus was promising.  And yet, as Mark tells us, even on the brink of a new vision of reality, they still don’t get the point.  They back away, Peter taking refuge in talking for the sake of hearing his own voice, it’s maybe only in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion and the baffling vision at the empty tomb that their minds begin to grasp what Jesus is offering. 

The light of Transfiguration and the light of disfigurement, I would like to suggest, embody the same paradox, the same impossible linking between creativity and imagination, joy and new life on the one hand, and humiliation, suffering and death on the other – and both extremes are revealed as the place where God acts, the place where God is with us and for us.  In his book, ‘The Bells of Nagasaki’, published just before his death in 1951, Doctor Takashi Nagai, who survived the atomic explosion and spent the following days bringing medical relief to other survivors, makes the startling claim that in the mushroom cloud of destruction he heard the voice of God.  Nagai remembers that the bells of the cathedral in Nagasaki kept ringing, right after the atom bomb exploded, in the middle of the destruction, and he dares to see the suffering of the people of Nagasaki as an invitation to share in the suffering of Christ.  Just as the cloud that descended over Jesus’ disciples on that mountain revealed the glory of Christ even at the moment of his greatest suffering, so Nagai claims the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki speaks of that same glory, experienced through unspeakable suffering. Just as Jesus’ suffering brings redemption, Nagai claims, so does the suffering of human beings. 

Today, Ethan’s mum and dad have brought him to be baptised, and in a moment we are going to pour water on his head and make him, for a very brief moment, the world’s newest Christian.  The Feast of the Transfiguration is a very good day for this.  Because in baptism we see re-enacted the very same paradox that Hiroshima reveals, the very same paradox that the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mt Tabor reveals.  Forget gentle Jesus meek and mild!  The God of Jesus, the God of Moses and Elijah is not tame.  Christian initiation and Christian spirituality is not a warm fuzzy reassurance but the death defying, life-affirming claim that God is with us no matter what.  Early generations of Christians, who would never have dreamed of baptising anyone without a good, full-body immersion in icy-cold water, knew very well that in the drowning waters of baptism we share in Jesus’ suffering and death, and when we are brought up spluttering and gasping for air we claim our share of resurrection life.  Heady stuff, and we claim that for Ethan today even though we’re going to be a little less vigorous.

The God of Jesus, the God of Moses and Elijah, is not safe.  But this God is with us and for us.  This God is revealed in our lives and in our world, right in the heart of our most dreadful recurring nightmares is the God who makes us and all things new.  This is the claim, and the hope that made it possible for Takashi Nagai to become a symbol of new life in post-war Japan – and the hope that – if we are prepared to grasp it – can enable us to become agents of resurrection in the world we live in.