Saturday, January 19, 2008

Epiphany 2

Have you ever noticed the number of stories in the Bible that involve somebody getting their name changed?  In the ancient world a name was believed to have great power, at the very least there was something in the name that conveyed who that person really was, or what they were about.  Even today I guess the name parents choose for their newborn suggests something about what they hope for their child, who they imagine their baby might grow up to be.  One of the things I really like about the Orthodox tradition is that babies get named twice – the first time the family gives the baby a name for everyday - the second naming is at baptism when the parents choose a saint’s name to remind their child of what he or she might become.

In our Gospel story today, we hear John’s version of how Jesus called his first disciples – and of course the first thing to notice is how different it is to Matthew’s version where Jesus calls Simon and Andrew away from their fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee.  In John’s Gospel the writer remembers a tradition that Jesus’ earliest disciples were originally followers of John.  The sequence of events is different – in John’s Gospel it’s right here, the first time Jesus claps eyes in the disciple who was going to become the staunchest and the most outspoken, if not quite the bravest, of the whole bunch – in Matthew’s Gospel it’s about half way through when Simon realises finally who Jesus really is and blurts it out loud – but in both Gospels Jesus gives this disciple a new name – from now on, I’m calling you Peter.  Because when Jesus looks at Simon he can see something that nobody else can see, he sees not what Simon is now, but what Simon can become, and he gives it a name, the Greek word for ‘rock’ – that’s how come in English we use words like ‘petrified’, Jesus gives Simon a nickname, Mr Steady-as-a-Rock, Mr Unshakeable, the one the whole structure is going to built on.

I guess with the gospels being written 50 years or more after the events there might be a ‘benefit of hindsight’ thing going on here, the gospel writers are certainly aware of the tradition that Peter did go on to be the cornerstone of the church in Jerusalem, they know the tradition that Peter became the first bishop of Rome and that he died a martyr’s death there.  But the point is that Jesus sees something in Simon that Simon doesn’t see yet, Jesus sees what Simon is going to become and gives him the name that helps Simon to see it too.  It’s a bit like the comment attributed to the famous Michelangelo when somebody asked him the (maybe not very bright) question, how did you start with that massive block of marble and end up with something so sublime as the sculpture of David – ‘oh’, he said, ‘I just chipped away everything that wasn’t David’.  Jesus just chips away everything that isn’t Peter, until Simon becomes what God originally created him to be.

I think the really useful thing about the example of Peter, for fairly flaky Christians like me, and maybe you, is that we know how very un-rock-like Peter is most of the time.  Jesus has got a whole lot of chipping to do and right up to the very end of the Gospel story Peter is anything but a rock – extravagant promises he can’t possibly live up to, self-doubt and denial, lying, running away, shame and self-loathing, at the end of it all with nothing left to do but go fishing.  Peter who’s all out of courage but who still loves Jesus enough to hear the words that can transform his shame into new energy and purpose.  Peter takes a whole lifetime to grow into the truth of the name Jesus gives him – much, I suspect, like most of the rest of us.

Did you know that being a Christian means saying ‘yes’ to Jesus chipping away from you everything that isn’t what God wants you to be?  I wonder what God’s secret name is for me, the name that reminds God of what I’m meant to be, not just what I’ve amounted to so far?  Peter’s story reminds us of something Christians sometimes act as though they’d prefer not to know, which is that being a Christian is about transformation, about growing into the image of God which is, of course, impossible for us but all in a day’s work for God.

Here’s the odd thing, though.  If I’m honest, it’s as though I’ve made a bargain with God. ‘Listen, God.  I know I’ve still got heaps of growing up to do.  I know there are streaks of selfishness and atheism in me a mile wide, so here’s the deal.  You go to work on me.  Transform me into what you need me to be.  I’ll just resist you every step of the way.  Good luck!’

Has anyone else made a bargain like that with God?

In psychotherapy resistance is a part of every relationship between a client and a therapist.  The closer the therapy gets to what’s really at stake, the real reasons for the patient’s emotional distress, the harder the patient works to cover it up, to project the problem onto the therapist, working furiously to hold on to old, familiar but counterproductive patterns of thought and behaviour.  Spiritual growth, in exactly the same way, always involves a certain amount of kicking and screaming.  The sort of transformation God wants to work in our lives involves us letting go of a whole lot that has always seemed comfortable and familiar, and venturing into unknown territory.  That’s why St Paul calls it dying with Christ.

I suspect it’s a process that has a parallel for our communal life, as a Church, as well.  ‘We do know, God, that you are trying to invite us into a new way of being your Church.  We know we have to change in order to represent the truth of your gospel in new ways for a new century.  We want you to change us.  Do your best – we’ll just cling as hard as we can to the solid ground of the past.’

Of course, Peter does change – by the time we get to the Acts of the Apostles, which is the sequel to St Luke’s Gospel, we see Peter beginning to grow into the meaning of his name – Simon maybe still inside there somewhere but definite signs of the foundation stone of the Church that Peter is becoming.  Perhaps, however, the tension between Simon the Shaky and Peter the Rock lasted right until the end of Peter’s life.  The Bible doesn’t follow his career right through, but according to one old legend in a book called the Martyrdom of Peter, when the word gets out that the Emperor Nero is in a crucifying mood Peter heads straight for the exit.  Hurrying out the backdoor of the city, Peter encounters none other than Jesus, going the other way.  ‘Lord’, says Peter, as you would, ‘what are you going in that direction for?’  ‘I have to go into Rome to be crucified again’, Jesus tells him – and on hearing those words Peter turns around and heads back into the city to meet his own destiny.

The tension between who I know myself to be and who God knows me to be does last a lifetime.  The trick is to learn to see ourselves as God sees us.

This is a truth that the prophet Isaiah knows very well.  We read this morning one of the so-called Servant poems, a mysterious collection that sometimes seems to be talking about an individual, sometimes about the whole nation, the people of Israel, sometimes about other servants, in fact the servants of the original Servant whose death in chapter 52 we Christians see as paradigmatic of the redeeming death of Christ.  As unclear as all this is, the Isaiah Servant poems are most helpful, maybe, because they remind us firstly of the vocation Jesus has for us, and then of the vocation God is inviting us to accept.  The Servant complains that nothing’s going right – failure and teasing is about all he’s got to show for it so far – but God’s perspective sees further than human limitation.  The transformation God promises has got nothing to do with the Servant’s own abilities – the initiative is God’s, that’s the first thing.  We’re called not to be clever, or successful, or powerful.  The second thing is that the vocation – to be a light to the nations – God wants to turn us into light! - means that the transformation God promises us is to reorientate the direction of our lives – away from preoccupation with our own needs, towards concern for the needs of others.

So if God’s job is to chip away at us, what’s ours?  I think there’s a clue in one of this Gospel writer’s favourite words – the Greek word is meno, and it occurs in today’s passage no less than five times.  In English it means stay, or persist – often our English Bibles translate it as abide – in slang we could translate meno as ‘hang on – or hang around, hang out, or even hang in.  For example:

And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending 
from heaven like a dove, and it hung on to him.


They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you hanging out?” He said to 
them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was hanging out, and 
they hung around with him that day.

Later in the Gospel we hear this word a whole lot more.  In chapter 15, Jesus says,

Hang in with me as I hang out with you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it hangs onto the vine, neither can you unless you hang around with me.

Hang around.  Hang in, hang out – hang on for dear life.