February 19, 2012

Apart, By Themselves

Passage: Mark 9:2-3

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

“Facebook is making us miserable”, claimed technology entrepreneur Daniel Gulati.  He is coauthor of Passion and Purpose and in his research for this book he monitored and observed how Facebook was impacting the lives of hundreds of businesspeople.  He described what he saw as distressing ways in which social media is fundamentally altering our sense of well-being.  “First, it’s creating a den of comparison”; on social media sites people typically share positive milestones and avoid the humdrum or negative parts of life promoting a competition for sharing the best good news.  Second, because you can access social media from any number of mobile devices, people access their account at work, home, while shopping and “are less “present” where they are.  Constant distractions lead to late and poor quality output, negatively impacting our sense of self-worth.”

Third, “there's a decline of close relationships. Gone are the days where Facebook merely complemented our real-life relationships. Now, Facebook is actually winning share of our core, off-line interactions. One participant summed it up simply: "We Facebook chat instead of meeting up. It's easier”.”

It may indeed be easier to “chat” via social media but something vital is missing if that is all the chatting we ever do.  Some things in life can only be experienced face to face, in person, with other human beings.  In my conservations with those of our congregation who can no longer get to church as they once did; while many find televised church services a great help invariably they confess how much they miss being at church.  What these people who are long in the faith know is that there are certain things about the Christian life that can be gained by being physically present at worship.  We may never be able to adequately describe what spiritually we miss we just know that something is lost.

This is not to say that social media is a bad thing.  I simply site our experience with this kind of media to note that, notwithstanding all its potential for communication, it has limitations.

1. “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.” I invite you to underline these last three words—“apart, by themselves.”  I suggest to you that this is more than a remark to tell us that the other nine disciples weren’t with Jesus on this occasion.  This is a deliberate act by Jesus—the four of them withdraw to a place away from everyone else so they can be together.

We also read the story of Elijah and Elisha and of Elijah’s chariot ride to heaven.  (People will often say they prefer a sudden death to a lingering departure; I have to say that I am very fond of a chariot of fire coming to get me.)  But to return to Elijah and Elisha; Elisha is the protégée in this relationship.  Elijah is the founder of the school of prophets (preachers) in Israel and Elisha is the one chosen to succeed Elijah.  Elijah is Elisha’s mentor.  Elisha asked for a double portion of his mentor’s spirit.  The “double portion” was the share of the inheritance for the elder son in Israel. Elisha is not asking to be twice the prophet that his mentor was; he is asking to be Elijah’s true heir.

I note throughout this story how Elisha insists on being in company with Elijah.  Like the company of these disciples with Jesus and Elisha present with Elijah some things can be had only in person.

2.  There is woven into the fabric of the scripture a clear implication that the faith revealed in God’s conversation with Israel and then made known in his coming to us in Jesus of Nazareth is lived out in company with others.  While this faith is certainly to be personally embraced it is never merely a private matter.  The individual believer is indeed loved and preserved by God yet such love of God isn’t individualistic.  As inheritors of Enlightenment thinking—I think therefore I am—we as Christians have placed too much emphasis on the individual and, I think, lost sight of the importance of being together in this faith.

We often think about church worship services this way.  We talk of worship as a kind of consumer product; if we offer something inspiring then people will come because they “get something out of it”; as if worship were a consumable like a meal at a restaurant.  To be clear, I am all for inspiring worship and I pray before each service that Our Saviour will grant us each the gifts we need at this service.  However, worship is what we offer to God—we collectively.  In fact, the one who should ask if they got anything out of worship is God.  If we came to church ready to give—my worship, my attentiveness to his voice—rather than to get would we will always receive way more than we can give.  No one can out-give God.

What was the new commandment Jesus gave his followers; what was the command he gave to guide us as we walk in company with Him?  “I give you a new commandment”, said our Saviour, “that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”  Note the number of times “one another” comes up.  Following our Lord’s teaching the Apostles letters are replete with “one another” admonitions; all of these arising from the application of this great “one another” of our Lord—love one another.

Embedded in the story of Jesus is that we are united together in him; we need one another to fulfill the purposes of God’s salvation in our lives.  The story of Jesus includes the story of Jesus calling disciples to himself to walk in company with him.  We follow this pattern as we walk in company with one another in this faith.

To be sure, our weekly worship is a prime “one another” practice of the church.  We gather together to share with one another in worship that our faith be sustained and upheld.  Yes, it is our Saviour who meets us here; who sustains and holds us by the power of the Spirit.  Yet in the mystery of his grace he works through us in this sustaining work.

Think, for example, of how it promotes your singing that others are singing with you these prayers of faith expressed in songs and hymns.  At our annual general meeting a few weeks ago we noted the declining attendance at our worship services.  We miss people who can no longer be with us; we miss them in part because their absence is a loss to us.  I said to you that there are certain things in life that can only be gained by being present—this is true for worship; when people are not able to be at worship we miss their contribution to us in this “one another” journey.  Paul wrote that we should not neglect the assembling of ourselves together; what is a stake isn’t just what the individual who misses by not being present—it is also what we all miss in this one another journey.

3.  “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.”  At the risk of sounding like a broken record—or like a software programme that is frozen on a particular song—please take note of the size of this group (a fairly small group).  Jesus journeyed with 12 disciples but on certain occasions takes these three to be with him.  There is a pattern here that I think worthy of note.  To be committed to share this faith life with a particular few who we can get to know and they can know us is also an important vehicle for faith development/sustaining.

Why does Jesus take them to the transfiguration mount?  To be sure he has something to show them—something to reveal to them.  But there are other occasions—like the garden of Gethsemane—when Jesus took these same three to be near him; to be with him as he suffered anticipating the agony of the coming sacrifice.  In some measure, Jesus needs them to be with him.  This day of transfiguration follows on the heels of Jesus declaration that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die; during the transfiguration Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus of the coming suffering.  I think that, in part, Jesus draws aside from his public ministry in this mount to be sustained for what he knows is to come.  He takes these three—the three he has the closest relationship with—to go to the mountain to be with him.  (As an aside, Jesus still wants Peter with him even though he has sternly rebuked Peter for trying to dissuade him from the journey to the cross)

For about eight years I met weekly with a group of men for breakfast.  We studied, prayed, shared faith, laughed, argued, and got to know each other well.  It was a group who journeyed together with Jesus.  While there were no other-worldly spiritual experiences, like the transfiguration Peter, James and John experienced, I do know that I was profoundly helped and sustained  through that experience—yes even transformed.  Jesus calls disciples together; blessings to be known in this “one another” walking together in faith.  As helpful as others are to you so too Jesus makes you and instrument of his sustaining grace for others.

4.  Both the story of Elijah and Elisha with a chariot of fire whisking Elijah away and the story of Jesus transfigured with Moses and Elijah appearing seems so removed from ordinary experience—even ordinary experience in ancient Israel or the first century church much less in the church today—as to make it hard to find real-life connections.

Both of these stories take place somehow just outside the ordinary realm of space and time. Neither event is typical or the kind of thing anyone would expect ever to happen again (notwithstanding my desire for a chariot of fire to show up for me). Both events are shot through with the divine and with the unexpected. Both events assure us that God is always at work and that the power of God that saves the world and that preserves his people (and his whole creation) is always present and is always active often just beyond the limits of our physical sight. Indeed, Elisha obviously learned this lesson well.

What Elisha saw that day by the Jordan River—like what the disciples saw on the Mount of Transfiguration—may have taken place just slightly outside the ordinary flow of the space-time continuum but it was still a part of the fabric of this world.  Jesus did not change into something he had not ordinarily been all along that day—the disciples saw a different dimension to Jesus than they could usually see. And Elijah’s being taken up by a chariot of fire may have been out of the ordinary but the existence of that chariot was no ephemeral thing that came into existence only for that moment and then winked back out of existence the moment Elisha could no longer see it blazing its way heavenward.

We should not conclude from either II Kings 2 or Mark 9 that events like these are things we can anticipate witnessing any moment now in our own lives. But it likewise would be a mistake to conclude that the spiritual and divine realities both stories allowed us to get a glance of are not still real at this very moment.

What Elisha witnessed and what Peter, James and John saw is also for us.  Think for a moment of the testimony of one believer to another about God’s help in their lives; these experiences are often personal and not repeated yet are an encouragement to us who hear. So too the Biblical disciples’ testimony remains for us.  It remains so because the Spirit of God bears witness to us its veracity.

5. Yet there is another way the story of these disciples is ourstory.

While the three men are with Jesus on the mountain, Jesus shines before them with a luminosity they can neither explain nor forget. He is highlighted in such a way as to leave them knowing that he is the effectual presence of God. They are startled yet also satisfied; taken aback yet also contented. They know that once more, on this mountain, they are standing on holy ground not because of anything about the ground but rather because of him who has shone before them.

All of us have had similar experiences at the level of the merely creaturely, the merely human. There must be, there has to be, some situation where the human love that spouse or friend or child or parent has poured over you for years suddenly staggers you, overwhelms you in one way or another.   You are startled that anyone should love you that much; startled even more that this person in particular, who knows you inside out, should love you that intensely and intentionally, that freely and forgivingly. As startled as you are, however, you aren’t the slightest bit sceptical or suspicious. You simply glory in the glow of someone’s love for you.

There must be, there has to be, some situation where truth has broken in on you. It broke in on you like a wave breaking on the beach and running up the shore. Before it all receded, and your surprise with it, it soaked into you. The fact that it was hidden within you; the fact that no one else was aware of what had happened; the fact that the truth that now seized your mind and heart you didn’t have words enough to articulate; none of this diminished in any way your conviction and the difference it made to you from that day.

There must be, there has to be, some situation in which Jesus Christ ceased to be a problem or a perplexity or the occasion of more questions than answers. He loomed before you as bedrock reality on which you could stand and from which you could gain perspective.  Like the disciples on the mount he made himself real to you.  You see him for who he is in all his glory.  As startled as you were, however, you weren’t frightened.  In fact this time your shock was also the end of your fear.

Usually we say little about such occasions. We don’t want to appear a religious exhibitionist. We don’t want to appear as tasteless as those who blab marital intimacies at a cocktail party.  Still, we know that something has established itself so deep within us that words will never do justice to it.

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.