Sunday, February 14, 2016

Changing the Rules of the Game

With our passages today we come to the centre of Mark’s account. We come to the heart of the gospel and hear just what it is that Jesus wants us to be and to do. With this in mind we walk together the text with and then work with one strand we find there. I found preparation to be more challenging than usual this week because there is so much in the text. We could spend the next month or three here without difficulty, and still no exhaust what the text says to us.

Mark 8:27-9:8
The first section brings the question, “Who is this guy?”, to its climax. Jesus knows the answer before he asks, “Who do people say I am?” The interchange is intended rather to help the disciples process the question for themselves. Then Peter verbalizes the answer; “You are the Messiah.”

This is the climax of the Messianic secret. As we have noted several times in the previous chapters, Jesus provokes people to wonder who he is and to speculate that he is the Messiah. After each act of healing, or exorcism, or forgiveness, he says, “Don’t tell anyone.” The people thought they knew what the Messiah would be, and they were wrong. So Jesus works to give them a new understanding.

Think of it this way. The Jews of Jesus’ day were playing a game with great enthusiasm. We might call the game, “Spot the Messiah”, sort of like a Where’s Waldo exercise as they tried to see who would come forward as God’s representative to throw out their Roman rulers. Jesus changed the rules of the game. Each time that they think they see the Messiah, he does something to make them wonder how he could possibly be the Messiah. Finally, the disciples really come to grips with what he is doing, and they get it: “You are the Messiah!”

The final verse in this section, “Don’t tell anyone”, keeps the game going for everyone else. Jesus will not short-circuit the process. People have to work it out for themselves as they keep playing, “Spot the Messiah.”

Peter’s great confession is followed immediately by his great failure. He has not yet grasped the depth of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah of God. Jesus starts talking about the way that he will die—indeed, the way that the Messiah must suffer and die, before he can rise from the dead. Peter responds by telling him that this cannot be. You see that Peter is still stuck with the old wrong idea about the Messiah. The Messiah is a conquering hero, not a suffering peasant! Jesus responds strongly: Get behind me Satan! The identification of the Messiah with conquest and power is a lie of the Devil!

Then Jesus puts his rebuke of Peter into the form of a general principle: Whoever would follow Jesus [that is what “be my disciple” means] must truly follow him—that is, the follower of Jesus imitates him in life and in death. Resurrection comes only to those who die in and with Christ.

Jesus closes this section with the verse: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Some people wonder how this can be, taking “come with power” to refer to Jesus’ second coming. We observe that the promise is fulfilled in several different ways—in the transfiguration that follows, in Jesus’ resurrection, and in the second coming at the end of time. Of these several layers, I see the resurrection as central.

So we come to the scene of the Transfiguration. Six days after the events we have just described, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain for an experience almost beyond description. Jesus was “transfigured” as he stood before them.

Clearly this event recalls Moses ascending Mount Sinai with Joshua in Exodus 24:
13Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. 14 He said to the elders, “wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.”15 When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud.
You see the parallels.

There are various other events in between Moses going up the mountain with Joshua and his final descent with the renewed tablets in Exodus 34, but notice especially verse 29:
29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.

This event brings together Elijah the prophet and Moses the lawgiver with Jesus, the Son of God, making clear that Peter, James, and John find themselves in the presence of God, who is bringing about the salvation of the world. As noted above, we can see this transfiguration of Christ as fulfilling verse 1. Peter, James, and John see the coming of the kingdom in power and great glory, even if it is not the final fulfillment of this verse in Jesus’ resurrection and second coming.

As the three disciples stand there, Peter responds, but is ignored. Instead, God himself speaks from Heaven identifying Jesus even more clearly than in Peter’s confession: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Listen means more than simply, “Hear his words.” It means also, “Follow!” So in this climax we hear again Jesus’ words earlier in the passage, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

There are many themes we could pick up and respond to. I will consider one briefly, but of course there is material here for many more studies together. The group that meets this Wednesday at 2 pm has more than enough material for their time together. Perhaps they should bring their supper along and meet until the club hour is over as well!

We come back to this game of “Spot the Messiah.” There is a similar game around us today, which we might call, “Spot the Christian.” When people think about Christians, what do they think of? What do they think we are like? How can they tell if you are a Christian?

Here are some of my own guesses as to what many people around us think.
  •  I go in to a restaurant and, before I start my meal, I bow my head and pray. You can see people spot the Christian after an athlete scores a touchdown and immediately point up to Heaven to say, “This one is for God!”
  •  I did a quick Google of “What are Christians like?” One of the first results was a blog by an “ex-Christian”, noting that Christians are most likely to support torturing terrorists to keep America safe. The comments beneath repeated in various forms the view that Christians are often driven by hate of people they don’t understand, and by a compulsion to make everyone else just like them.” I know that I disagree with their perspective, but when they play, “Spot the Christian”, I know what they think we look like.
  •  A common theme among people who think Christians look like this is that Christians are blinded by faith and unable or unwilling to use reason. We are (they tell us) irrational people who try to make other people give up their reason to be like us. 
I could keep going, but that’s enough. You can see what the rules of the game “Spot the Christian” look like. We can argue with people if we like. We can tell them that we are driven by love, not hate, that Christian faith is rational, not irrational, that we welcome everyone and compel no one. We can argue all we like, but the rules of the game stay the same.

So we take a step backwards and ask: What did Jesus do? He did not argue with the people trying to convince them that they had a wrong view of the Messiah. Rather, he acted in ways that drew them to him, and then refused to fit into their rules. He changed the rules of the game by accepting into himself the hate and bitterness and anger of the world around him, dying on the cross. In the verses we read, we see that Jesus calls us to follow him on the same path. People are playing a game with rules that make it almost impossible for us to represent God faithfully (remember, God made us as his images). Instead of arguing with them and saying how unfair their game is, we imitate Jesus and break their rules.

How did Jesus break the rules? He refused to claim the title that was rightfully his, and kept on doing the things that the Messiah would do. In Mark’s account, he healed the sick and demon-possessed. He ate with broken people, the outcasts of society—tax collectors and sinners. He performed miracles such as calming the storm on the lake and feeding five thousand with one person’s meal. He announced the coming of a new reality in his own person, including overcoming death itself.

We cannot do all that he did, but we have the model: We embrace the marginalized and the hurt of this world, even if so doing leads to our own deaths, as we each take up our cross and follow Jesus. When people ask, “Why are you doing this?” We respond, “I’m a Christian, but don’t tell anyone!” Then we let them wrestle with it and keep watching us to see if they can figure it out.

Where This May Take Us
As long as we think primarily of how our choice to follow Jesus affects other people, we are not yet following him fully. To put it another way, I want to change the rules of the game people play, the game of “Spot the Christian”. But if that is what I want most, I am not yet following Jesus. Jesus says, “Before anything else, you must take up your cross and follow me.”

Where does this take us? Taking up my cross means that I die to myself and live to Christ. I ask first of all, what does God want in my life now?
  • A neighbour asserts his rights in a way that inconveniences me. I respond by seeking a path that restores our relationship, not just by getting what I want.
  • The church wonders what to do if the government removes our charitable status. We respond by seeking God’s path, not ours—even if that means accepting a status we resent.
  •  Mennonite Church Canada struggles with our future. We accept that God’s path may involve the death of structures we have come to love.
  • Our community sees graffiti going up around town. We look for ways to be God’s people in relationship with the graffiti artists.
  • A friend chooses to live in a relationship we think is wrong. We look for ways to stay in relationship—being authentic about our own understanding of what is right and wrong while upholding the dignity of our friend in his/her choices.

In every case, we work together to understand what God wants us to do. We accept the loss of personal privilege that goes with being real community under Jesus. We accept the loss of personal rights that goes with not fighting back against those who lash out in their distress. We accept the hurt and anger around us, recognizing that real life come only through embracing the cross.

When we follow this path, we enter into the pain and distress of this world and accept it as our own. We may experience “compassion fatigue” or “secondary PTSD” in the process: That may be what “take up your cross and follow me” means. When we enter this path, we also receive experiences like the transfiguration, which give us glimpses of glory on the way.

Some Concluding Words
I must admit that I feel completely inadequate at this point. I know what I am trying to communicate—that living in relationship with Jesus brings us into a lifestyle that makes no sense to the world around us and has the potential to change their understanding about God and the whole of reality.

You see, the game of “Spot the Christian” has become a way of pushing people away from God. Now, although following Christ is our primary goal, nevertheless I do want to see people, the whole world reconciled with God. I was at a conference this past week listening to theologian Chris Wright speak on “The Mission of God.” He referred especially to Ephesians 3:
Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
So Wright focussed on this incredible mystery that everyone—Jew and Gentile alike—are brought into one family to share in “the promise of Jesus Christ.” (You can hear these lectures, “the Downey Lectures”, here.)

I often refer to 2 Corinthians 5 in this way:
18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
God wants the whole world to live in harmony and peace, what the Bible calls Shalom. And God has made us part of the process by which he brings all creation into the peace and justice that belongs to creation from the beginning.

I was interviewed by a student this week for a class on “adult development”. She asked me, “If you had three wishes, what would you ask for?” After some thought, I settled on that old standby, World Peace. Can you imagine a world in which Jews and Arabs have learned to hear and accept each other’s pain, and have brought peace to their region? Can you imagine a world in which the marginalized of Steinbach have moved beyond the restlessness that destroys their lives and become fully themselves, God’s children? Can you imagine a world in which Donald Trump has learned to love those who protest at his rallies—to love them as much as he loves himself? Or a world in which I can also love Donald Trump, although I find his policies and campaign style destructive. Can you imagine a world in which we can welcome refugees without being afraid that they will make our lives harder? Can you imagine a world in which your brother or sister, who has somehow survived a destructive divorce, can be reconciled completely with their ex-spouse? Can you imagine a world in which that friend who has hurt you so badly—or whom you have cut off completely—is restored through God’s grace to full friendship?

I’m not sure I can, but I know I want to. And I know that the only way there is the way of the cross, which Jesus has already walked and on which he invites us to follow. The rule of the world’s game is, “Look out for number one. Get the other guy before he gets you.” That approach leads to the way people play “Spot the Christian.” We need to change the rules of the game.

Prayer (The Friday Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer)
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
14 February 2016
Acts 8:27-9:8

Peter Declares That Jesus Is the Messiah

27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” 28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” 30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Jesus Predicts His Death

31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

The Way of the Cross

34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

The Transfiguration

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

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