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11th February 2018 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
9 February 2018

2 Kings 2:1-12

Today’s reading is about Elisha succeeding Elijah and we should note that Elijah has to cross over the Jordan to reach his promise then in the passage immediately following today’s reading Elisha crosses back to fulfil that promised ministry.

Moses led the people across the Red Sea to leave Egypt and Joshua leads them across the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. 

As we listen to the crossing of the Jordan bringing new promise in today’s reading remember that earlier this year we looked at John the Baptizer appearing as the new Elijah by the banks of the Jordan.  We also read that in baptism Jesus comes up out of the Jordan and instead of the waters parting the heavens parted, a truly new beginning.

Andrew notes that all biblical religion depends on succession and that understanding not only helps us cope with our world but helps us understand the message the Gospel writers bring us as they explain Jesus as a continuation of their religious tradition.

Mark 9:2-9

Context is always important because so much of the gospel writer’s message is delivered in the way the story is assembled.

Chapter 8 begins with a great crowd following Jesus to the point where, if they went back to their homes for food, they would collapse on the way. 

We learned in our first reading that new beginnings have got something to do with crossing water and dividing things.  However with Moses as the model we also know that when people of God take people away from home on the way to something new they are expected to feed them.  Jesus does that by feeding four thousand.

Then the Pharisees come and ask for a sign and the disciples worry about not having bread and we are left with the impression that neither the Pharisees nor the disciples can see what is happening.  Jesus then heals a blind man who sees very well. 

That brings us to the turning point of the Gospel at the return from Caesarea Philippi where Peter proclaims Jesus as the Messiah but does not understand about Jesus’ death. 

In today’s reading a representative group of disciples are taken to a secluded place and have a spiritual experience of Jesus’ identity.   

Sermon

Maurice Andrew writes that ‘All biblical religion depends on succession.  What comes feeds on the past, and what is past leads to what comes’[1]  A very wise comment from a very astute biblical scholar but in reality it goes further than simply acknowledging biblical structure.  Innovation in the human society also feeds on the past and, practices and understandings from the past help to build new knowledge, structures, organisations and ways of living in the future. 

The Bible is built on a structure that recognises that experience and spiritual insight from the past informs the future.  The reason why Christians put so much emphasis on reading the Bible is this reality that spiritual insight from the past will not only inform our lives now but guide us to the future.  

The Bible is not a book of straightforward instructions called Spiritual Direction for Dummies. The Bible is a collection of rules, history and stories that are assembled in a pattern of succession where the past informs the future and episodes in one time are reflected in earlier times.  The Bible reflects real life and therefore offers us both a foundation and a framework to build our own religious response to our world.

Our gospel reading is built on a previous episode and the imagery in the vision described reflects past scripture and religious tradition.  Jesus and the disciples take time out in the gentile resort of Caesarea Philippi.  That was a place of considerable ancient religious significance but not Jewish territory.  On the way back from Caesarea Philippi Jesus instigates a discussion about his identity.  Where does he fit in their religious tradition? 

Mark’s Gospel gives us two prompts from Jesus.  Who do people say he is, and who do the disciples say he is?  After going through a number of significant figures from their religious and cultural tradition Peter finally proclaims Jesus as the Messiah.  That was a reasoned conclusion based on the religious tradition of the past that combined with the difficulties people experienced in the present.  Through that reasoning they were led to believe that God would send new leadership in the future.  God would send a messiah.  Jesus’ actions and teaching came so close to what tradition said about a messiah that he must be the expected messiah. 

In today’s episode Jesus takes three disciples onto a mountain to pray and significantly Peter is one of them.  

Mountains have a spiritual significance in many, many religious traditions.  Mountains are religiously significant to Maori and they are certainly significant to Judaism with the law being given to Moses on a mountain.  There are also references to Jerusalem and the Temple being on the highest mountain although neither Kiwi nor Sherpa would classify it has such.   

It is in an atmosphere of prayer combined with the mountaintop sense of sacred space that the disciples feel the presence of Jesus as a spiritual presence.  For a moment he is more than the Jesus they are with everyday.  To describe that experience Mark uses traditional imagery from their religious texts. 

Jesus is joined by significant figures from the past, Moses and Elijah, both of whom had been mentioned in the discussion on the road to Caesarea Philippi.  Moses, Elijah and Jesus glow dazzling white, the description of heavenly messengers in Hebrew scripture.  All three of them are surrounded in a cloud as Moses was when he received the Decalogue on Mount Sinai.  They also hear the divine voice proclaiming Jesus’ divinity which was first encountered at Jesus’ baptism. 

So in this vision Jesus is connected with the disciples’ religious past and the reader’s previous experience of Mark’s narrative.  This episode is a spiritual experience in the world of Mark’s Gospel that builds on its past and creates a platform for greater spiritual understanding for the literary journey ahead. 

The episode also challenges the reader to reflect on their own intellectual response to Jesus and their spiritual experiences that might create a starting point for their own spiritual growth and religious response to life.

Many of us came into the church at birth and grew up with church attending families and our understanding of Jesus’ identity and significance grew through Sunday School and youth group.  In the Methodist and Presbyterian tradition I trust that good scholarly preaching was part of a growing religious understanding.   

For some that intellectual growth in the faith will be enhanced by some form of Spiritual experience that moves faith from something we know about to spiritual certainty.  Some branches of the church demand such an experience and insist that it manifest itself publicly in some way. 

However, today’s reading describes a spiritual experience involving just three disciples in a secluded place.  Furthermore the disciples concerned were instructed not to tell anyone about it so exhibitionism is at least optional. 

There are a few of us however who did not grow up in church attending households and the whole concept of mission would seem to assume that to be true.  Mission outreach would seem to assume that people without previous church affiliation can be brought into the church.   As an un-churched teenager I used to hear about gigantic crusades and wondered what the point was when all the people who went to these events already belonged to a church.  Of course I was invited to such events from time to time but didn’t go.

What eventually impressed me were people I knew, and was involved in activities with, who were caring, ethical people who made a positive contribution to life which seemed to be driven by their Christian conviction. 

In church growth jargon that is called friendship evangelism and you can find an example of it in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.  John recommends Jesus to two of his disciples.  One of those was Andrew and he found his brother Simon, later to be called Peter, and brought him to Jesus.  (John 1:40-42)

As a result of the people I knew and the activities I was involved in I came in contact with gospel stories and Christian tradition. 

I have told the story before but it is worth repeating because it demonstrates the connection I am making between an intellectual understanding of our faith and a spiritual certainty.

At a Scout camp service the leader talked about life in a World War Two prison camp in South East Asia where, through Christian influence, prisoners changed from an everyone for themselves to an everyone for everyone else culture.  The result was astounding because while people where only looking out for themselves sick people were dying while the others were scrambling for what meagre possessions they steal from them.  Under the influence of first just one devout Christian who believed in living his faith people started caring for the sick, even sharing their food with them.  Instead of dying sick prisoners began to recover.  

To my adolescent male mind that was brought up on classic war adventure stories, this view of practical Christianity made sense. 

It was a story about men, who without Christ in their lives died, and by living as Christ to others lived. 

Those were the ideas buzzing in my head as I walked back to my tent and my brain formed the basis of a theological understanding that has stayed with me ever since.  Suddenly the bush around me felt different, although I was deliberately walking by myself there was an indescribable presence surrounding me.  Because it was indescribable I couldn’t describe it then and certainly can’t describe it now. 

I did not see shining white figures of Jesus, Elijah and Moses.  But in as much as they represent a continuing faith in the world of Mark’s Gospel that same faith provided the religious framework in my mind.  I formed my spiritual understanding in Christian images.

That moment was more of a ‘thin place’ than ‘a mountain top experience’.  But just as the disciples had reflected on their religious tradition on the road to Caesarea Philippi, and that reflection provided the imagery for their mountain top experience, so it was Christian imagery and a secular story in a Christian context that fired my thin place experience. 

That event so long ago was both a spiritual experience and a conversion experience because from that moment on I set out to join a church.  That conversion was not as instant as it might have been if I had accepted an invitation to an evangelical crusade.  I was a cynical, stubborn and shy teenage boy.  But the experience crushed a good deal of cynicism and stubbornness fuelled a determination that overcame my shyness so I did join a church.  The Spirit I encountered on that strange evening has stayed with me ever since.

I did have one very similar experience that was a mountaintop experience but none since. In my faith journey since then the Holy Spirit respects my critical theological cynicism and speaks to me through other people.  What has stayed with me has been this image of growing our faith through Biblical study and theological discussion as a process that builds a framework for a confirming spiritual experience.  However although a spiritual experience may well be a blinding vision on a mountain it could also be a feeling of empowering warmth while singing a favourite hymn or even just the comfortable knowing from a lifetime of loyal faith.

The key message of these texts is that our faith is fed by the tradition and scripture of the past but it is the way we find reality in that faith that carries us into the future



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.254

 

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