is my Son, Listen to him
A sermon on Mark 2:2-9 by Nathan Nettleton, 26 February 2006
In Jesus, God is calling us to see and hear a gospel that takes us beyond rule making and sacred violence.
Many of us, in our Christian journeys, have been converted so many times we've lost track. Even many of those of us who can identify a moment of conversion, when we became intentional followers of Jesus for the first time, have had other points along the journey where our perspective on who Jesus is and what he is calling us to has been so radically changed that it has felt like we were starting again for the first time. We suddenly realise that some of our core convictions about the nature of Christ's gospel were way off beam, perhaps even downright wrong, and our new perspectives seems so liberating and life-giving that we can almost doubt whether we really belonged to Christ previously. In truth we almost certainly did, for God's grace is able to forgive all manner of screwed up thinking, but these conversion-like moments do draw us closer to Christ's heart and into new pathways of discipleship which honour Christ and benefit us.
It appears from our gospel reading today that something like that happened on the mountain top for Peter, James and John. You've probably had the experience where you suddenly see a person you know in a whole new light. We sometimes use transfiguration type language. We speak of the lights suddenly coming on, or of someone's face lighting up. Usually it is not that anything about the person changed. It is just that in a moment of blinding revelation, you suddenly realised something about them that had always been true, but which you never saw before, and which gives you a radically changed perspective on them. We can't know for sure what happened on the mountain top that day. The language used by the gospel writers to describe it is the sort of language we use when trying to describe the impact of an experience, not the objective facts of the experience. But of course, the important thing is not the details of what happened, but what the experience revealed about Christ and about his gospel and about what it means to be his followers.
In my reflection on this story this week, my thinking has been captured by a possibility I never saw before. In the story, when the three disciples see Jesus transfigured on the mountain, they see Moses and Elijah standing there talking with him. Usually we have interpreted that as a favourable comparison: Jesus stands in the same line as these two and brings to fulfilment all that they stood for. And given how significant Moses and Elijah were for the Jewish understanding of God's ways and workings, such a comparison would be quite likely. But the writings of a theologian called Paul Nuechterlein alerted me to another possibility this week, and the more I have reflected on it the more it is ringing true to me.
Sometimes you can change the tone of voice with which you read certain passages, and realise that there is a whole other way of understanding the same words. You can do that here with just voice, but for the sake of those who are reading it and for even greater clarity, let me paraphrase a bit too.
Then they saw Elijah and Moses there talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, this is great! What a team: you, Moses and Elijah! Let us build three huts, one for each of you and stay here with these heroes of the faith." He was freaking out a bit and had no idea what to say. But then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "Don't worry about those two. This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly they looked around, and only Jesus remained.
Read it with that sort of inflection, and rather than being compared to Moses and Elijah, Jesus is being contrasted with them. Rather than calling attention to the similarities, we may be being called to notice the dissimilarities and to align ourselves with Jesus rather than with Moses and Elijah. Now this is not to put down Moses and Elijah. It is not to say that they are anti-Christ figures, or anything like that. The question is not about how much they had got right or wrong in their ministries, but about what they had come to stand for in the popular religious mind. The disciples are being called to choose between the Moses and Elijah of the popular religious mindset of their day, and the Jesus who has just told them that he is on his way to Jerusalem where he will be lynched by the leaders who claim to be acting in the authority of Moses and Elijah.
You see, the gospel of Jesus the Messiah is quite different from the religious approaches that Moses and Elijah had come to stand for, and this differentiation is one that continues to be of critical importance in today's climate. For just as it is true that Moses and Elijah may have both been coopted to justify religious agendas which they would have opposed in their day, so it is most certainly true that the name and authority of Jesus is constantly being coopted to legitimise and perpetuate the same agendas. And while Jesus is big enough to look after himself, for the sake of our own spiritual health and influence, we need to be careful that we are dancing to the tune of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, and not to that of the competing gospels which often claim his name. So if Jesus is being contrasted with Moses and Elijah, what is it that we are being called to leave behind in what they have come to stand for?
Moses has come to stand for the Law, and for a judicial approach to enforcing righteousness and protecting society from transgressors. In seeing Moses as a great hero for whom they should build a hut and stay and learn from, we and the disciples are in danger of seeing Jesus as one who comes to refine and reinforce the law, but who essentially reaffirms it as the operational principle of our relationship with God. In this system, true discipleship would be grounded in disciplined obedience to the laws, and in keeping our community pure by punishing or expelling those who do not. Our tendency to try to take what belongs to others and destroy our rivals and be unfaithful to one another is taken seriously, and this system offers as a means of keeping them in check the threat of God-endorsed violent consequences. So those who are ready to stone the adulterous woman do so in the name of God on the authority of Moses. And those who are force out the gentiles and those suffering from leprosy or demonic torment do so in the name of God on the authority of Moses. And those who make a scapegoat of Jesus and sacrifice him do so in the name of God for the good of the community on the authority of Moses. And why is Jesus such a threat? Precisely because he does not endorse such a system of legalised sacred violence. Precisely because he advocates an end to painting God in such an image and calls us to recognise God as the one who always desires mercy not judgement. "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"
And Elijah? What story is Elijah most remembered for? That's right; the contest with the prophets of Baal to see which God can light a fire on the altar. But what does Elijah do when he wins the contest? He slaughters the losers. He takes up the sword and kills every last one of them. And so Elijah comes to stand for a religious system that upholds the honour of God by sacrificing God's rivals. And war after war has been fought by those who believed that they would honour God by being the warrior patriot who proves God's supremacy by killing and destroying those who follow other Gods or even who follow allegedly heretical versions of the Christian gospel. Let it be said, that such a bloodthirsty faith is itself a most dangerously heretical gospel, one associated with Elijah, but which the suffering messiah calls us to turn away from. Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem, not to kill and destroy the enemies of God who had come to control the religious state, but to stand firm for truth and love and mercy, even if it meant being named as an enemy of God himself and killed by those who acted in the names of Moses and Elijah. Jesus called us to follow him, not by destroying the adherents of such religious systems, but by becoming their victims if necessary in order to expose before the light of Christ their vicious persecution of even the loving and peaceful and merciful and just. "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"
I am by no means certain that such a distinction between Jesus and Moses and Elijah is what the gospel writer was trying to make in the story of the transfiguration. I am, however, quite sure that Jesus calls us to a path of discipleship which leaves behind these sorts of things which their legacies had become associated with. If you have followed a gospel which says that you can fulfil the requirements of God by tightly defining acceptable behaviour and values, and expelling those who don't respect the officially endorsed values and laws, then even if you are the national treasurer, Jesus is calling you to a new path of discipleship which is grounded in love and welcome and mercy, not rules and punishments and scapegoating. And if you have followed a gospel which says that you can please God by waging war against the terrorists or the abortionists or the gays, or against the rednecks and fundamentalists, then Jesus is calling you to a new path of discipleship which is grounded in mercy and peacemaking and being willing to suffer violence and forgive rather than ever perpetuate it.
On Wednesday evening we will gather here again to begin our forty day journey through Lent, in solidarity with those throughout the churches who are preparing to be baptised into this life of radical mercy and non-violence, and as we undertake that journey, we will be invited again and again to reflect on the struggle and the cost of living out such a radical discipleship in a violent world. And as we do, it is my prayer that we will again and again be given startling new insights into who Jesus is, so that he may be transfigured in our eyes and we may be converted yet again to a deeper life in his mercy and love.